Dr. Julianne Imperato-McGinley, director of the Clinical and Translational Science Center (CTSC) and associate dean for translational research and educational training at Weill Cornell Medicine, has won the 2023 Joan and Sanford I. Weill Exemplary Achievement Award.
The Weill Award was established in 2018 to coincide with and celebrate the 20th anniversary of Weill Cornell Medicine’s renaming in honor of the institution’s foremost benefactors, Joan and Sanford I. Weill. The institution presents the award, which carries a $50,000 cash prize, to an outstanding faculty member whose work enhances the field of health care worldwide. Dr. Imperato-McGinley, who has dedicated nearly 50 years to Weill Cornell Medicine, accepted her award June 8 at a gala held in her honor.
“I am honored to receive this award acknowledging the significance of my work on the 25th anniversary of Weill Cornell Medicine’s renaming.” Dr. Imperato-McGinley said.
A distinguished clinician and researcher, Dr. Imperato-McGinley is perhaps best known for her earliest work studying the biology of human sexual differentiation and development. As an National Institutes of Health fellow in endocrinology, Dr. Imperato-McGinley followed a community in the Dominican Republic that had a population of intersex children who were raised female but presented as male at puberty.
In studying these patients, her research group discovered they were deficient in the enzyme 5-alpha reductase. The enzyme, as it turned out, is responsible for transforming testosterone to dihydrotestosterone (DHT). The hormone DHT, in turn, is essential for the formation of external male genitalia and the prostate. The research, published in 1974 in the journal Science, found that the shortage of 5-alpha reductase resulted in ambiguous genitalia at birth.
“I started to study these patients and noticed these men never lost their hair and never had prostate enlargement,” said Dr. Imperato-McGinley, who is also the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Distinguished Professor of Medicine in Endocrinology at Weill Cornell Medicine. Those observations led to the development of the landmark drug Finasteride. A 5-alpha reductase inhibitor, Finasteride is a treatment for enlarged prostate and hair loss.
“The endocrine system is like a puzzle,” said Dr. Imperato-McGinley, who among her many leadership roles was chief of the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism for 25 years before returning to the faculty in 2019. Finding how the pieces fit together, especially in the cases she encountered as a resident, is what drew her to the field.
Dr. Imperato-McGinley is also lauded for her longstanding leadership and dedication to mentorship—passions best exemplified in her work with the CTSC, a multi-institutional consortium with the goal of accelerating new patient preventive interventions and treatments through translational research. The CTSC is funded by an NIH grant—the largest ever awarded to Weill Cornell Medicine—that has been renewed four times for 20 years of continuous funding. Dr. Imperato-McGinley prides herself as a steadfast mentor to researchers and clinicians at varying stages of their careers.
“I am very solicitous of all the young investigators—I really try to help them—and the older investigators whose work has become outmoded,” she said. “I try to bring them back in to think out of the box.”
Though she was thrilled by the warm words of her colleagues upon receiving the Weill Award, Dr. Imperato-McGinley considers the satisfaction of working in translational research to be her biggest source of pride, unmatched by any award or grant.
“I’ve worked very hard my whole life,” she said. “I raised two children, with the help of a wonderful husband. Other than that, this career has been a constant challenge. But I really do like the challenge.”