When Gov. John Bel Edwards announced at a late October news conference the development of a new bariatric research and treatment center at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, much of the attention centered on the world-renowned surgeon who would head the new facility: Dr. Phil Schauer.
With good reason. Schauer is one of the top bariatric surgeons in the world, having pioneered several cutting-edge gastric surgery techniques in the 1990s that are widely used today. That someone of his caliber would leave the famed Cleveland Clinic for Pennington—bringing with him 50 researchers and their millions of dollars in federal research grants, no less—signaled a major win on many levels.
But though Schauer was the man of the hour that day, the man who deserved much of the credit for making the deal happen was Pennington Executive Director Dr. John Kirwan, a 62-year-old rock-star researcher in his own right who is working on a cure for Type 2 diabetes. It was Kirwan who conceived the bariatric surgery center in the first place, and it was his reputation and personal relationship with Schauer that helped lure the famed surgeon to Louisiana.
Not that you’d have necessarily picked up on that right away. Though Kirwan is comfortable at the podium, he doesn’t overpower a room or feel the need to dominate it. He’s low key, quietly confident and remarkably down to earth, so it takes a few minutes talking with him before you realize he’s the smartest person in the room. Perhaps, the smartest person you’ve ever met.
In the nearly two years since taking the reins at Pennington, those traits have served Kirwan well. His vision for what Pennington can be and his connections in the tight-knit community of specialists who study obesity, nutrition and diabetes have enabled him to recruit top talent to the market—not only Schauer, but earlier this year he landed Dr. Justin Brown, who came from Harvard to lead Pennington’s new Cancer Metabolism Research Center.
Kirwan’s own impressive credentials—he continues to lead research projects at Pennington and published 16 studies last year while running the institution—have earned him the respect of community leaders here and colleagues around the world, enhancing Pennington’s already sterling reputation.
Perhaps most importantly, he has exceedingly good people skills, which is something you can’t always say about some of the people who spend their days in the lab. He’s likable and non-threatening but also politically savvy, which enables him to navigate the halls of power to get what he wants without stepping on toes or bruising the egos of those in a position to help him.
That largely explains how he was able to bring together the state, LSU, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, Pennington’s foundation and other key stakeholders in a few short months to partner on making the bariatric surgery center and successful recruitment of Schauer a reality.
Those who know Kirwan say they’re not surprised. He’s driven, focused and brings to the position the right skill set, experience and temperament to propel Pennington to the next level and help it realize its potential—not only as a world-class research institution but as a destination medical center in the middle of Baton Rouge.
From champion athlete to star scientist
Kirwan was running the Metabolic Translational Research Center at the Cleveland Clinic in 2017 when headhunters reached out to him about the top job at Pennington. He wasn’t looking to leave Cleveland, where he was studying ways to reverse Type 2 diabetes. But April Kirwan, his wife of more than 30 years, knew he’d accept the position if it was ultimately offered.
“He’d been talking about Pennington for 20 years, all throughout his career,” she says. “When he first told me he had been contacted by recruiters for the Pennington, I was like, oh my gosh, the Pennington? It’s funny because here in Baton Rouge I get the impression people don’t really know how widely known and respected it is throughout the world.”
April Kirwan is right. Much of Baton Rouge seemingly has no idea what goes on behind the walls of the relatively nondescript glass buildings that front Perkins Road on Pennington’s 234-acre campus. John Kirwan plans to change that.
It’s not the career path he would have imagined growing up in a small town outside of Limerick in the midwest of Ireland. The second of six children, and the only one to attend college, Kirwan was always an overachiever, as gifted in athletics as in academics. He was nationally ranked as a runner and as a player of Gaelic football—a cross between soccer and rugby—and spent summers during college playing for Gaelic football clubs in Boston and New York.
It was his first exposure to the U.S. and he liked it. After graduating from the University of Limerick with a degree in kinesiology, he returned to the U.S. to get his Master’s degree at Amherst then his Ph.D at Ball State University in Indiana, where he wrote his dissertation on carbohydrate balance and muscle fatigue.
His research on the body’s performance and nutrition caught the attention of the scientific community back home, with Kirwan, then just 33, being offered a position heading Ireland’s Olympic training center at the University of Limerick. It was a dream job for an athlete-turned-scientist that Kirwan says came along 20 years too soon and made him realize one thing: He didn’t want to be an administrator, at least not yet.
But the experience also taught him some valuable skills: How to play in the political arena and work with academics and elected officials to build programs, which would come in handy years later when he took over at Pennington.
In the years that would follow, Kirwan returned to the U.S., where the opportunities to do research in his field were far better than in Europe. He moved around to move up, getting married to April, an oncology nurse practitioner, and having four children along the way.
His career took him from Ireland to Penn State to Case Western Reserve to the Cleveland Clinic, where he was instrumental in discovering that bariatric surgery can reverse Type 2 diabetes—not after the patient begins to lose weight, but almost immediately after the surgery.
It’s a tremendously significant finding that Kirwan has been further studying and building on for years, trying to determine what, specifically, changes in the stomach during the surgery so that those changes can be replicated in other ways—through therapies or even drugs.
Because of his expertise in that specific field, Kirwan was a natural target for recruiters seeking to replace former executive director, Dr. William Cefalu, who left in early 2017 to head the American Diabetes Association.
“He has the scientific bona fides that are very, very strong,” says attorney C. Kris Kirkpatrick, who was president of the Pennington Biomedical Research Foundation when Kirwan was recruited and was on the selection committee. “He is world renowned in his area of diabetes and nutrition research and he was coming from Cleveland Clinic, one of the top health care institutions in America.”
Also working in Kirwan’s favor was the fact that nearly a dozen researchers were willing to follow him to Pennington, which Kirkpatrick says made him something of a “mini economic development engine.”
Janet Olson, the board’s current president, was also impressed by Kirwan’s vision for Pennington.
“He is unassuming but amazingly focused and knowledgeable,” Olson says, “and he has a vision that he is putting together to make Pennington a household name—not just among scientists but among the general public.”
Realizing a vision
In the nearly two years since, Kirwan has been focused on expanding the center beyond its original mission of doing basic and applied research. That is no small thing. For years, elected officials and leaders in economic development, health care and academia have wanted to leverage the tremendous body of intellectual capital that exists at Pennington. They’ve just never been quite able to figure out how.
Kirwan was the right person at the right time, coming as Pennington had regained its financial footing after years of state and federal budget cuts, and the nascent Baton Rouge Health District was beginning to take shape.
Among his wins, so far, has been to develop a weight-centric treatment program for Medicaid patients with Type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes. He helped secure funding from the Legislature and negotiated a contract with the state to open a Medicaid pilot demonstration clinic within the center’s outpatient clinic facility on Perkins Road.
Kirwan also was instrumental in recruiting Brown, the doctor from Harvard, to lead the new Cancer Metabolism Program, another new expansion at Pennington made possible by a $1.2 million grant from businessman and longtime foundation board member Art Favre. The center is significant because it will study the connection between diabetes, weight loss and cancer, an area that Kirwan believes holds unlimited potential for Pennington in the future.
The new bariatric research and surgery center is the next piece of the puzzle—and it’s a major one. Kirwan says he’d been interested in creating a clinical program built on Pennington’s research from the moment he arrived, but wasn’t sure initially how to execute it.
Then, early this year, he got word that Schauer, his longtime colleague from the Cleveland Clinic, was searching for a new opportunity. Schauer says he’d been interested in coming to Pennington since Kirwan had announced he was leaving Cleveland.
“We built a really fantastic metabolic treatment program with a focus on surgery at Cleveland and had taken it as far as it could go,” Schauer says. “So I was looking around … and Pennington brings a whole other dimension that excited me.”
Kirwan recognized Schauer as the key to creating the new center but didn’t have the pieces in place to offer the surgeon the package he would need. So he brought together key stakeholders to create the program and fund it—his bosses at LSU as well as officials from Louisiana Economic Development, Our Lady of the Lake, where the surgeries will be performed, and the Pennington Biomedical Research Foundation.
Together, they cobbled together more than $5 million to recruit Schauer and his team of researchers and to build out facilities for the center at OLOL and in Pennington’s outpatient clinical building, where pre- and post-op treatments will take place. Pennington’s mission statement was literally rewritten to include clinical services.
“It took quite a bit of pulling organizations together,” Kirwan says. “But people really value Pennington and this was a good idea and we were able to get everybody around the table.”
He says it helped that the clock was ticking, as Schauer was being courted by competing institutions around the country. Pennington and its partners had to act fast if they were to land the surgeon.
“We couldn’t let this drag on forever,” Kirwan says. “You were in or out. In the end, everybody was in … and he came.”
Kirwan chuckles as he says this, as if he’s still just tickled that the deal came together as it did.
He should be. In terms of numbers alone, the program, scheduled to open in 2020, will have an estimated economic impact of more than $100 million in its first four years of operation and create nearly 100 permanent new jobs.
On the scientific and medical level, the program is expected to make Pennington one of the foremost treatment centers for obesity in the world, not only tripling the number of gastric bypass and gastric sleeve procedures done here annually to 1,000 or so, but doing the most complicated cases in the world.
There’s really no other institution on the planet with the level of expertise, both on the research and clinical side, in this particular field—and it’s a growing field with tremendous public health implications. Diabetes and obesity are among the leading health afflictions in the country, with connections to more than a dozen cancers, heart disease and a host of other maladies. Pennington now has the potential to not only be the best place in the world to study this but also the best place in the world to come for treatment.
“There are many bariatric centers around the country within a medical school that do have some high-level research,” Schauer says. “Nothing compares to what this will be.”
Destination health care
Besides what the bariatric surgery program will do for Pennington is what it will do for the Baton Rouge Health District, which was created by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. Though it has been evolving for several years, the health district, until now, has largely been a concept, a geographic area that happens to be home to several hospitals and clinics. Pennington, with its expanded mission of clinical care, is the piece of the puzzle that had been missing and now will tie together the various institutions and providers.
“Health care used to be local but that is less and less the case and patients are consumers, evaluating their best care options based on quality and cost,” Health District Executive Director Steve Ceulemans says. “So in the future, having one of the most prominent bariatric surgeons tied to one of the most prominent research centers in the world as well as one of the most prominent care providers creates some real synergies. … I think it will elevate the level of excellence and become an economic driver for the region.”
For his part, Kirwan sees the health district as a key factor in what he is trying to build and do at Pennington. He points to Cleveland’s University Circle, a community and cultural hub built around that city’s health care institutions, as an example of what a health district can do and be. He says Ceulemans and the connections he made through the health district was instrumental in helping bring all the parties together to create the bariatric treatment program.
“That’s just the beginning of what we can do,” he says.
Looking forward, Kirwan plans to launch a rebrand of Pennington in early 2020, a concerted campaign to make the institution well known—not only among researchers but among the general public.
Long term, he hopes to make Pennington the anchor for a cancer consortium in Baton Rouge, which would involve bringing together all the hospitals in the area and securing from the National Cancer Institute a prestigious designation as a Comprehensive Cancer Center. With that, Baton Rouge would be eligible to participate in a wide variety of new trials and treatments.
Kirwan expects it will take five, perhaps 10 years but he sees it as the next big opportunity in his new home.
“It would be very good for Baton Rouge and the health district,” he says. “It’s not necessarily our sweet spot but the fact that obesity and cancer are now so linked it puts us right into that space and gives us real opportunity for growth.”