91R, 93F Internal Medicine
Recipient of the 2006 Distinguished Alumni Award for Early Achievement
As a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, Virend Somers wondered why some research subjects experienced surges in blood pressure and heart rate during the night. The literature offered him few clues until he read about sleep apnea.
“It became clear to me that my grandfather, who had died in his sleep, probably had severe sleep apnea,” Somers recalled. Family history plus a fascination with scientific riddles have propelled his research, which has revealed links between sleep disorders and cardiovascular disease.
A native of South Africa where he completed medical school, Somers came to the UI on the invitation of François Abboud, MD, who shared research interests with Somers’ Oxford mentor James Conway, MD.
“Even though I arrived in Iowa in the middle of a January snow storm, I was absolutely impressed by the institution,” Somers said. “So much that the UI was the only site where he applied for both residency and fellowship.”
Upon completing his training, Somers joined the UI faculty and became director of the Cardiovascular Neurophysiology Laboratory. In 1999 he accepted a faculty appointment at the Mayo Clinic where he is a Mayo Foundation Clinical Investigator.
“ We are exploring why people die during sleep,” he said of his current work, which encompass patient-oriented research, bench science and epidemiologic studies. “Why is it the greatest risk of a cardiovascular event occurs in early morning after waking, and what is it about sleep deprivation that may promote cardiovascular damage?”
Somers findings contribute to the growing awareness of sleep disorders. “It is quite a revelation to see how patients with sleep apnea are so quickly recognized by cardiologists today, in striking contrast to 10 years ago,” Somers said, adding that the chance to do research with clear clinical implications is among the most satisfying aspects of his career.
“My maternal uncle and guardian was a general practitioner who would have loved the opportunity to pursue a career in cardiology,” Somers said.
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