Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Meet John Varga, MD, John and Nancy Hughes Distinguished Professor in the Division of Rheumatology and Director of the Scleroderma Program

John Varga, MD

John Varga, MD, may have been destined to pursue a career in medicine. After all, both his parents, as well as his grandfather, great-grandfather, and several uncles, were all doctors, many in academic medicine. Varga grew up in Budapest, Hungary, and came as a refugee to the U.S. shortly after the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Continuing his family’s longstanding medical tradition, Varga earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Columbia University in New York, N.Y., and a Doctor of Medicine degree from New York University before marrying his wife, an emergency medicine physician.

Since completing his internal medicine and rheumatology training, Varga has worked as a clinician and scientist engaged in basic science and clinical research. His research efforts, which have been supported continuously by the National Institutes of Health, encompass biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, signaling, and more recently, immunology, biomarkers, and genetic studies. Varga’s work has resulted in the publication of more than 220 original papers, reviews, and book chapters, and more than 200 abstracts.

Though proud of the work he has accomplished as a physician/scientist, Varga says his role as a mentor to young faculty and trainees at Northwestern is his most important and enjoyable. Varga has mentored numerous high school and college students and has supervised the research training of more than 20 residents and post-doctoral fellows, several of whom are currently engaged in active research.


What are your research interests?
My research interests relate to the pathogenesis and treatment of fibrosis, or scarring. This interest grew out of my clinical experience in caring for patients with scleroderma — a devastating disease that is poorly understood, has no effective treatment, and has a high mortality. I realized that fibrosis occurs not only in scleroderma, but in many diverse conditions that share a similar pathogenesis involving inflammation, autoimmunity, and vascular injury. These conditions together account for 45 percent of all deaths worldwide, and appear to be increasing in prevalence.

Our current research focuses on delineating the shared cellular and molecular mechanisms and genetic factors underlying these fibrosing conditions. Because fibrosis effects many organs and is prominent in diverse conditions, our research involves collaboration with colleagues from many different medical specialties.

What research projects are you currently pursuing?
In the lab, we are examining the role of PPAR-gamma, a metabolic factors best known to be involved in diabetes and obesity. Our recent findings now implicate PPAR-gamma in the pathogenesis and potential treatment of fibrosis. We are also looking at animal models of fibrosis to understand the link between chronic inflammation and fibrosis.

In the clinic, we are studying the genetic factors responsible for fibrosis — using both candidate gene and genome-wide association study (GWAS) approaches. With my colleague, Monique Hinchcliff, MD, instructor of rheumatology, we are examining biomarkers that could be used to identify a subset of patients responding to particular anti-fibrotic therapies. Such biomarkers may provide novel insights into disease pathogenesis, and also be helpful in identifying distinct subsets of patients with varying disease manifestations and prognosis.

What is the ultimate goal of your research?
Our central goal is to have a better understanding of how a self-limited injury leads (in genetically susceptible individuals) to progressive tissue remodeling and intractable scar, so we are able to design novel therapeutic strategies for its control and cure. We want to be able to rapidly move our lab-based discoveries — be they pathomechanistic studies, biomarkers, or genetic factors —to the clinic to enhance our ability to help patients with fibrosis.

What are some of the challenges you face?
Increasing the integration of clinical and basic research activities in order to achieve a seamless bench-to-bedside flow is challenging, as is obtaining sufficient funding to support and grow our ambitious research agenda, and to enable our junior faculty to succeed in their research.

What brought you to the Feinberg School of Medicine?
The three main factors that made Feinberg so appealing were the emphasis on patient-oriented translational research with a tradition of strong interdisciplinary interaction, the outstanding clinical enterprise with a culture of quality care, and the superb training programs in place.

I feel privileged to work with a talented and passionate group of young faculty and trainees at Feinberg and take great pride in their accomplishments. I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of a community of outstanding colleagues.