Harry Hill, MD
Sep 27, 2019 8:00 AM
The 2019 Award for Distinguished ServiceHarry Hill, MD
For his contributions to research and education about immune deficiency disorders at the University of Utah School of Medicine and throughout the world.
When Harry Hill arrived at the University of Utah in 1974, there were no services for people with primary immune deficiencies in the state — or the entire Mountain West.
“You’d see kids and adults who had three pneumonias,” Hill said. “We would keep treating the pneumonia, but the patients wouldn’t get better. Nobody at the time knew what was wrong. They weren’t trained to think of an immune deficiency.” As a result, many patients either left the area to seek answers and treatment or died without receiving the specialized care they needed.
Primary immunodeficiency diseases are a class of chronic disorders caused by hereditary or genetic defects in which the body’s immune system is missing or functions improperly. People with immune deficiencies are like a country without an army to properly defend it from outside invaders. Worse still, sometimes the army attacks its own.
But in the 1970s, most of medicine was trained to fight the outside invaders. “There is a saying in medicine, ‘When you hear the approach of hooves, think horses.’ It means that the simplest, direct answer is most often the right one,” Hill said. “But in our line of work we know that sometimes it’s not horses. Sometimes the sound you hear is zebras. It’s not always the most-obvious answers.”
So Hill came up with a plan. An immunodeficiency specialist, he established a clinical immunology clinic to see both adult and pediatric patients. Then, behind the clinic, he opened a laboratory, recruiting a chemist and blood specialist to investigate the causes of the clinic’s patients’ conditions. The lab was the first of its kind in the Mountain West.
Hill has taken care of hundreds of immune-deficient patients throughout the region, while his 40-plus years of NIH-funded research has made an impact around the globe. He has published 445 peer-reviewed and review papers in scientific journals. In 1984 Hill became one of the faculty cofounders of ARUP Laboratories, the national reference laboratory owned by the University of Utah. His immunology laboratory became the second-largest lab within ARUP.
Hill is the 2019 recipient of the University of Utah School of Medicine Alumni Distinguished Service Award.
"Immune deficiency patients can be so terribly sick. When we get them on the appropriate therapy, they come back practically cured... There's nothing better."
- Harry Hill, MD
“Harry is one of a very select group of physicians who has consistently excelled at an extremely high level, in all aspects of academic medicine including research, clinical service, and education,” said Carl Kjeldsberg, one of ARUP’s cofounders and former ARUP president. “He is much loved by his patients, both adults and children. Despite these extraordinary achievements, Harry is one of the most humble individuals I know. I cannot think of anyone who is more deserving to receive this prestigious award.”
The physician side of Hill loves helping those who are suffering because of primary immunodeficiency diseases, and the researcher side of him loves solving mysteries. The signs of immune deficiencies are often not easily recognized. A person may go to the doctor and be diagnosed with an ear infection, a skin abscess, or other common ailment, but if an underlying immune deficiency exists, a minor ailment may soon evolve into a serious one.
Hill and his colleagues have developed effective, rapid molecular tests that have helped patients lead longer, healthier lives. Hill has also been able to provide them with an understanding of the risks their offspring and relatives face of developing similar disorders. Using state-of-the-art tools and techniques such as high-resolution DNA melting analysis, results can come back in as little as one to two days, a once-unthinkable speed.
“Without the immune tests that we do, it’s extremely difficult to make a diagnosis in our immune-deficient patients,” he said. “You don’t know what’s causing this infection or that infection. The interaction of the lab and the clinician is critical.”
Hill estimates that when he started, there were between eight and 10 seriously immune-deficient patients each year who sought treatment. Today, they are diagnosing more than three times as many.
“We’ve been fortunate to help the vast majority survive and live with their conditions,” Hill said.
After helping to start ARUP, a critical turning point in the history of the university, Hill founded ARUP’s Institute for Clinical and Experimental Pathology in 1996. ARUP began with a focus on serving the university, but external demand grew rapidly. Creating the institute allowed ARUP to continue expanding its research enterprise.
“We had grown to the point where we were treating so many people, we had no time to do research,” said Hill, who continues to serve as the medical director of the ARUP Cellular and Innate Immunology Laboratory. “By creating the institute we could take people who were more interested in research and say, ‘OK, your job is to do research 90 percent of the time.’ So we stayed ahead, and we developed a lot of new tests before other laboratories did.”
Today, ARUP is a nationally recognized, premier research center offering more than 3,000 tests ranging from routine screenings to highly esoteric molecular and genetic assays to medical centers and medical clinics across the country.
“I can’t emphasize enough how much Drs. Carl Kjeldsberg, John Matsen, Peter Jensen, our pathology chairs, and ARUP executives have supported me in these efforts,” Hill said.
Hill said he is also grateful for the incredible assistance of Jeannette Hansen-Rejali, his administrative assistant (“and boss”) for 31 years, and Nancy Augustine, the senior scientist who ran his research laboratory for 42 years and developed many of the tests employed in the Cellular and Innate Laboratory at ARUP, as well as his wife of 53 years, Sandra.
“I’ve been surrounded by good people and had some of the most incredible fellows in the world.”
Today, Hill continues to see patients once a week — when not engaging with his three children and five grandchildren or heading off to do what he calls “high-altitude addiction research,” in which he hikes, climbs, or skis.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve seen nearly 500 seriously immune-deficient patients,” said Hill. “They can be so terribly sick with severe recurrent issues. When we get them on the appropriate therapy, they become practically cured. They come back smiling and so happy. There's nothing better. I love this line of work.”
by Richard Polikoff
The 2019 School of Medicine Alumni Awards
Harry Hill, MD
Karl A. Sanders, MD
The M. Paul Southwick Prize for Excellence in Clinical Medicine and Teaching