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Leon Fine, MD, Graduates to New Challenges

Leon Fine480px.jpg

Leon Fine, MD

On May 30, the Cedars-Sinai Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences handed out doctoral and master's degrees upon 26 students. Just 12 years ago, this event could not have taken place; Cedars-Sinai was not a degree-granting institution.

Today, Cedars-Sinai operates multiple graduate degree programs, along with a robust Department of Biomedical Sciences.

These sea-changing achievements are largely attributable to one individual who happened to have a career itch in 2007.

"I was keen to do something I'd never done before," said Leon Fine, MD, professor of Biomedical Sciences and Medicine, recalling his state of mind at the time. "I also wanted to return to Los Angeles, where my two daughters live. To be sure, my wife certainly preferred the weather in L.A." He had professional roots here as well, having served as chief of the Division of Nephrology at UCLA from 1978 to 1991.

Fine's Southland plan was preceded by a 15-year stay across the pond at the prestigious University College London, where, for 11 years, he chaired the Division of Medicine and the Department of Medicine before becoming dean of the Faculty of Clinical Sciences.

It turned out that Cedars-Sinai in 2007 shared Fine's never-done-this-before state of mind, having committed to creating a department for basic research scientists and a graduate program. Shlomo Melmed, MB, ChB, who was then chief academic officer and is now executive vice president of Academic Affairs and dean of the medical faculty, was searching for someone to spearhead these supersized undertakings.

Knock, knock.

"When I came back to L.A., my first stop was Dr. Melmed's office," Fine said.

Introductions were not necessary. The two men have known each other for more than half a century. Both were born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, and received their medical degrees from the University of Cape Town.

"I knew Leon would be a good fit because of his experience and expertise," explained Melmed, professor of Medicine and Endocrinology/Metabolism. "He's an extremely smart guy and very intuitive. I felt he would be a natural leader here because of his innate talents and high professional profile."

Fine also is fond of challenges.

"That's why I chose nephrology as my specialty," Fine said. "The kidney is an incredibly complicated organ."

As Cedars-Sinai's first vice dean of Research and Graduate Research Education and chair of Biomedical Sciences—positions he held from 2007 to 2017—Fine had a to-do list full of challenges. Just ask David Underhill, PhD, professor of Biomedical Sciences and Medicine and the Janis and William Wetsman Family Chair in Inflammatory Bowel Disease. He worked closely with Fine in establishing the graduate program, which welcomed its first class in 2008.

"Leon had to create a PhD program from scratch and invent how it would fit into this institution," Underhill said. "He championed getting the program accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in 2012, which definitely was a big deal."

Underhill added: "He also had to invent a new department and shape its identity. He did a yeoman's job and is widely admired by Cedars-Sinai faculty." The Department of Biomedical Sciences today has 125 faculty members.

Among Fine's admirers is C. Noel Bairey Merz, MD, professor of Medicine, director of the Barbra Streisand Women's Heart Center and the Linda Joy Pollin Women’s Heart Health Program in the Smidt Heart Institute.

"In 2007, we both attended a scientific conference," Bairey Merz recalled. "Dr. Fine heard me present a lecture and afterward approached me about the Clinical Scholars Program he was starting. He thought I would be a good fit as the director.

"I thought the program sounded like a great way to enhance Cedars-Sinai's scientific depth, and Dr. Fine struck me as having a lot of good ideas and energy," Bairey Merz said. "I didn't hesitate in saying yes."

She still directs the program, which trains aspiring clinical scientists. "The success of today's graduate program can be traced back to Dr. Fine, as can the robustness of our research enterprise," she added.

Fine is credited with numerous other achievements during his first decade at Cedars-Sinai, which helped trigger another career direction.

"One of my longtime interests is medical history. I've written many papers about medical history, particularly the history of kidney diseases," Fine explained. So he turned his attention to helping Cedars-Sinai advance this field of study.

Now in its second year and directed by Fine, the Program in the History of Medicine aims to develop original research and educate the medical center community about the theory and practice of medicine and science across the centuries.

Fine has two other interests: collecting beautiful books and post-war and contemporary art. On his walls at home hang works by Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, among other artists. He owns hundreds of books, including private press books. "Each book is a work of art, from the typography to page layout and binding," he said. 

Besides leading the Program in the History of Medicine, Fine since 2017 has served as medical director for a new program: the Center for the Undiagnosed Patient.

"There's a relatively large population of patients who have seen many doctors and still don't have a sense of what's wrong with them," Fine said. "We take a collaborative approach."

The program connects undiagnosed patients to Cedars-Sinai specialists, with the goal of establishing a diagnosis for complex, rare conditions.

Word of the program has spread. "Patient numbers are increasing, and we've started weekly rounds. These are incredibly complex clinical cases," Fine said.

Together with scientific colleagues, he recently established a gastronomic science consortium, another of his passions. "Cedars-Sinai scientists who can exchange ideas with creative chefs plan to broaden the dialog on what is today a widespread infatuation with food culture, world cuisines and food writing." Fine reports that the first of these encounters was fascinating.

Retirement isn't yet on his radar and may not be, he said, "until I hear people whispering in the hallways: 'I wonder when Fine plans to leave.'"

Should that happen, chances are good the whispering would trigger another career itch, and Fine would be off to add a new chapter to his storied life.