April 13, 2005

Rybak named SIUC's Outstanding Scholar

by K.C. Jaehnig


Leonard P. Rybak

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Otolaryngologist Leonard P. Rybak, a surgeon who has spent much of his career studying inner ear injuries and hearing loss, has been named Southern Illinois University Carbondale's 21st Outstanding Scholar.

A faculty member in the School of Medicine's Department of Surgery-Division of Otolaryngology in Springfield since 1981, and cross-appointed in the Department of Pharmacology, Dr. Rybak will be honored during Graduate School commencement ceremonies May 14 in Carbondale. He will receive $7,500 in cash, $7,500 in professional development support, a wristwatch and a framed certificate under SIUC Chancellor Walter V. Wendler's "Excellence Through Commitment Awards Program" established last year. He also will have the right to use the title "Distinguished Scholar" after his name.

Much of Dr. Rybak's work has focused on understanding why many drugs commonly used to treat other ailments can wind up damaging the inner ear and causing hearing loss.

"There is no current available therapy to reverse the damage," wrote Dr. James F. Battey, director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, in a letter supporting Dr. Rybak's nomination as top scholar.

"Dr. Rybak's basic research program has contributed greatly to this area and has high propensity for clinical application."

Dr. Rybak was the first to find that cisplatin, an anti-cancer drug, causes the production of free radicals — atoms or groups of atoms with free, or unpaired, electrons — in inner ear tissues. When free radicals react with cell membranes, they can damage or even kill the cells.

Dr. Rybak suggested that this happened because the inner ear's normal detoxification system failed. He then began trying to understand how the free radicals were produced and what might be done to protect the inner ear.

"This work has had a very significant impact on the field, and it is correct to state that Dr. Rybak's contributions are leading the way toward developing new therapies to prevent hearing loss," wrote Edwin W. Rubel, Virginia Merrill Bloedel Professor of Hearing Science at the University of Washington's Virginia Merrill Bloedel Hearing Research Center.

Dr. Rybak has also looked at how inner ear cells are normally "remodeled" or replaced in subjects of varying ages, finding that these cells in mature subjects are far more active than was previously thought.

Jochen Schacht, director of the University of Michigan Medical Center's Kresge Hearing Research Institute described Dr. Rybak's work as "elegant and imaginative" and wrote that his "contributions over the last couple of decades have substantially shaped our understanding of the toxicology of the inner ear. His name is mentioned with respect anywhere in the world whenever the discussion centers around ototoxicity (harm done to organs or nerves related to hearing and balance)."

Dr. Battey noted that the federal institute he directs had provided funds for Dr. Rybak's research since 1985. "That length of funding in and of itself is testimony to Dr. Rybak's scientific accomplishment," he wrote.

Dr. Battey also noted that Dr. Rybak had served on many scientific review panels for various federal health-related agencies and that Dr. Battey's institute had tapped Dr. Rybak to serve as co-chair of a national strategic research plan, on its planning and policy committee and on its Board of Scientific Counselors.

"Very few in the nation have had the distinction of serving the government in the varying ways in which Dr. Rybak has contributed, "Dr. Battey wrote. "In short, his stewardship and commitment to the National Institutes of Health research enterprise has been simply outstanding."

Schacht and Rubel both noted Dr. Rybak's leadership in professional and research-oriented societies and the honors he has received.

"Three (of those awards) seem to sum up Dr. Rybak's accomplishments most appropriately: the Jacob Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award, which is bestowed by the National Institutes of Health for excellence in research; the election to president of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology, which reflects the high regard of his research peers; and the Distinguished Service Award of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, which shows the esteem of his clinical colleagues," wrote Schacht.

Supporting and fostering faculty excellence is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Dr. Rybak, a native of East St. Louis, earned his bachelor's degree from the St. Louis College of Pharmacy in 1969 and his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee in 1973. He interned at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and completed a residency in otolaryngology at the University of Minnesota affiliated hospitals in 1979. He also earned a doctoral degree in Otolaryngology from the University of Minnesota in 1979. He has been a full professor of surgery at the medical school since 1989.