Published: Nov. 10, 2017 By

Leslie Leinwand has won the American Heart Association's 2017 Distinguished Scientist award for outstanding contributions to the field of heart health


The usage of fats from python hearts on mammals and the cardiovascular differences between females and males are at the core of research by a University of Colorado Boulder professor being recognized for her significant contributions to the field of heart health.

Leslie Leinwand, a distinguished professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and the chief scientific officer of the BioFrontiers Institute, is CU Boulder's first ever recipient of the American Heart Association's annual Distinguished Scientist award.

This prestigious award, which will be conferred at the American Heart Association’s annual Scientific Sessions on Nov. 12, recognizes significant, original and sustained scientific contributions to the field of heart research. 

"I'm quite happy with where I am in my career," Leinwand commented. "But being honored by your colleagues — your peers — is always the best."

A portrait of Leslie Leinwand.

A portrait of Leslie Leinwand, who is a 2017 Distinguished Scientist awardee from the American Heart Association.

Most of Leinwand's career has focused on personalizing cardiovascular care through two major research themes: the role of one's sex on heart health, and the search for new solutions to treat heart disease in humans (in this case, by studying Burmese pythons).

For both areas of research, Leinwand looked beyond the common assumptions and found new solutions to old problems, including finding three new types of lipids (or fats) in the bloodstreams of Burmese pythons that could theoretically be applied to human medicine after further testing.

These fats not only allow the hearts of snakes who had large, sudden intakes of food to work more efficiently (like well-exercised hearts in human athletes), but they also keep fats from building up in the heart and causing heart disease. This buildup of "bad fats" is what happens in mammals who have large amounts of fat in their blood after big or particularly fatty meals.

These breakthroughs led Leinwand and other scientists to form three biotechnology companies — Myogen Inc., which has since been sold to Gilead Pharmaceuticals; Hiberna Inc., which uses pythons and ground squirrels to develop cutting-edge therapeutics for cardiovascular disease; and MyoKardia Inc., which has the goal of better care for inherited heart disease.

Leinwand is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a National Academy of Inventors fellow, and helped found the intercampus University of Colorado Cardiovascular Institute (which integrates cardiovascular research, treatment and discovery across the Anschutz Medical and Boulder campuses).

"Leslie has made a career of fearlessly and creatively approaching challenges, like heart disease, by searching for answers beyond her field and beyond what we think could be possible," said Tom Cech, the director of the BioFrontiers Institute, a Nobel laureate and a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry. "This unique view of science also gives the students in her lab and in her classroom the tools and perspectives they will need to solve the biomedical challenges of the future."

Leinwand attributes much of her success to the interdisciplinary focus at CU Boulder, and at the BioFrontiers Institute in particular.

"There aren't that many places that provide the intellectual environment to encourage people to go out on the edge," Leinwand said. "BioFrontiers has just been fantastic."

Last year's recipients of the American Heart Association's Distinguished Scientist award include a clinical cardiologist who studies the role of oxygen in heart health, a pioneer of MRI development, a scientist who has spent his career trying to understand the causes of cardiovascular disease and chronic disease prevention, and a scientist aiming to improve nursing care and a scientist known for his work with white-blood cells.