Bruce Rubin thinks of himself as an engineer. With cause: he earned a master’s and did postdoc work at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, both in biomedical engineering. He was also a professor of biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech for 12 years. He looks at biomaterials like mucus and aerosol therapy as engineering problems. To date, he has five patents, including devices that deliver aerosol and drugs to clear patients’ airways.

Rubin’s team received extensive media coverage earlier this year when they linked Vicks VapoRub with excessive mucus production in toddlers. Rubin is proud of this study for how it will help children as well as for the process that brought the discovery to light. A pediatric resident was eager to publish his observation that Vicks VapoRub had exacerbated a patient’s breathing problems. Rubin, instead, encouraged him to “give up your nights and weekends for three months and come into the lab to figure out why this might have happened.”

The resident agreed. Rubin teamed him with a postdoctoral student and provided funding to support their research. They in turn performed experiments that revealed the biologic mechanisms behind the resident’s observation. “Now that you know the mechanism,” Rubin challenged the resident, “see if any other children show up with a similar problem.” After all, he muses, “the eye will not see what the mind doesn’t know.”

Children who might have previously had unexplained problems were soon identified, and now the necessary ingredients were in place to publish in the top pulmonary journal. But the part of the story that keeps Rubin excited? “I had a couple of enthusiastic guys who got fired up and are now doing academic research on their own.”

Rubin’s record of research accomplishment also includes showing how antibiotics like azithromycin can beneficially modulate the immune system in lung disease like cystic fibrosis; he has edited a book on the subject. He also turned conventional wisdom on its head with his discovery that the lungs of CF patients fill up with pus, rather than too much mucus, as was long believed. By showing that mucus protects the lung and that there is too little mucus in the CF airway, his research group has identified promising and radically new avenues for therapy. With more than 200 research papers and chapters to his credit, Rubin is
also on the editorial board of 12 pulmonary journals.