IOWA CITY — For a kid who grew up on a farm near Haverhill and spent his teenage years “taking any job he could find,” Michael Welsh sure has come a long way.
The area native, who graduated from the now-defunct Lenihan Catholic High School, recently received the Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine along with Paul Negulescu from Vertex Pharmaceuticals for their contributions in the field of cystic fibrosis research.
Welsh, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Iowa, was one of just six total honorees from around the world across three separate categories. His research on the disease, which currently affects about 70,000 people globally, began in the early 1990s, and it focused on what causes the genetic defect and how it could potentially be mitigated or even cured altogether.
Welsh, who is also a professor in the neurosurgery, neurology, and molecular physiology and biophysics departments and serves as the director of the Pappajohn Biomedical Institute, said he became well aware of CF through his work as a pulmonary physician with a focus on lung disease, and he wanted to better understand why the lungs created a thin layer of liquid.
His discoveries ultimately led to the successful creation of an effective drug developed at Negulescu’s company, and about 50 percent of all CF patients are now taking it. Welsh, who has been employed at the same university where he went to medical school since 1981, was thrilled to receive the honor and optimistic that his work has made a difference in countless lives.
“I feel incredibly privileged and fortunate to have terrific mentors and opportunities, and the support at the University of Iowa led to this,” Welsh said. “I also felt humbled because there were so many trainees and colleagues who assisted. This work is not one person. It’s many people — scientists, physicians, caregivers. People who have cystic fibrosis participated in the trials and helped us out in so many ways.”
In reflecting on his journey from his years in Marshall County — which included jobs baling hay, painting barns, working construction and preparing Maid Rites at Taylor’s — Welsh said it helped him to appreciate what other people do for a living, and he also realized how important it was to make sure kids from all sorts of backgrounds and countries have the opportunity to be successful.
“I have the best job in the world. I get to work in research, playing with puzzles and all that. I get to work with and meld the minds of young people, and the things I do have the opportunity to change lives,” he said. “There’s bright kids from every area, and we need to figure out a way to give them opportunities.”
Welsh and Negulescu will receive the prize in the fall, and it carries a combined monetary award of $1.2 million. To learn more about the Shaw Prize and this year’s recipients, visit https://www.shawprize.org/.
Contact Robert Maharry
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