Endocrine Society Awards Walter L. Miller Its Lifetime Achievement Award

By Mitzi Baker

Walter L. Miller, MD, distinguished professor emeritus and former chief of Pediatric Endocrinology at UC San Francisco, has been awarded the highest honor bestowed by the Endocrine Society, the world’s oldest and largest organization of scientists devoted to hormone research and physicians who care for people with hormone-related conditions.

Portrait of Walter Miller
Walter L. Miller, MD

The organization has announced its annual Laureate Awards, with Miller receiving the 2016 Fred Conrad Koch Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognizes exceptional career-long contributions to the field of endocrinology. “Miller has been the undisputed authority in understanding how the body produces steroids at the molecular level for a quarter of a century,” according to the society’s press release about the award.

Although steroids are most often known as the agents of sports doping scandals, Miller said, steroid hormones are a group of biologically important molecules that regulate a number of critical physiological processes, including metabolism, blood pressure, response to physical stress, growth and sexual development.

Pursuing Research Relevant to Clinical Practice

Miller studied the molecular biology of how steroid hormones are produced in the body, primarily by cloning genes and identifying mutations in those genes that cause a number of human diseases involving hormone disorders.

After completing both a biochemistry fellowship and a pediatric endocrinology fellowship in the 1970s at UCSF, Miller’s scientific approach integrated basic research with clinical experience.

“I always knew I was going to play with DNA and RNA,” he said. As a pediatrician and an endocrinologist, he also wanted that pursuit to be relevant to his clinical practice. He targeted a group of rare pediatric disorders caused by defects in the various steps of making steroid hormones, which very few scientists were studying at the time.

Taking a Broad Approach

Miller’s major contributions to the field began as he established his own research laboratory within the Department of Pediatrics in 1982, at the dawn of the era of recombinant DNA techniques to manipulate genes.

“What was probably different in my lab is that we took broad approach from outset,” Miller said. “Rather than focus on a specific disease, we wanted to see the whole biological process.” In other words, how the cells in the adrenal glands, testes, ovaries and placenta make different steroid hormones via chains of biochemical events that all start with cholesterol – and what can go wrong.

In taking that approach, his team identified the genetic basis of eight different diseases, including congenital lipoid adrenal hyperplasia, a rare disorder called P450 oxidoreductase deficiency and vitamin D-dependent rickets. They cloned bovine growth hormone and prolactin, which led to a multibillion-dollar industry. Over his career, he has published more than 400 scientific articles and received numerous awards and honors for his discoveries.

Much of his career success, he said, can be credited to the more than 100 students, fellows and visiting scientists in his laboratory or in the Pediatric Endocrinology program he led.

To continue the tradition of basic scientific research in endocrinology at UCSF, Miller and his wife donated funds earlier this year to establish an endowed Distinguished Chair in pediatric endocrinology.

The Endocrine Society will present Miller with the lifetime achievement award and a $25,000 honorarium at their Annual Meeting & Expo in Orlando, Fla., in April 2017.

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