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Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, is a finalist for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal.
Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, is a finalist for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers has long been interested in sickle cell anemia — back to high school, when he saw the first of three friends die of the painful disease.

"You hate for anyone to die, but parents don't really want to bury their children," he said. "I guess it made a mark on me."

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The director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda has dedicated his career to studying the condition, which afflicts people of African descent at higher rates than others, and developing treatments.

Rodgers' first major contribution to sickle cell research was work on developing a drug, hydroxyurea, which is used to treat it. Now his team at the National Institutes of Health is testing new ways of completing blood stem-cell transplants, which have had promising results.

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The New Orleans native is being honored for his work by the Washington-based Partnership for Public Service, which named him a finalist for the annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals.

Rodgers is a finalist in the science and environment category. The medal winners in eight categories are to be announced in October.

"We want our nation's public servants to feel honored," said Lara Shane, vice president of the partnership, which promotes careers in government. "They come to work every day and work on behalf of our country. They do it in spite of some of the criticism that government writ-large often receives."

The partnership has been presenting the awards since 2002 in hopes of encouraging innovation and highlighting the accomplishments of federal employees. More than 400 people are nominated each year.

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Rodgers, a self-described "eternal optimist," hopes that sickle cell disease will one day be cured.

People with sickle cell disease have abnormal hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen through the body. The abnormal hemoglobin reduces the ordinarily disk-shaped blood cells to stiff sickle shapes that stick to blood vessels, preventing oxygen from reaching nearby tissues and organs.

The misshapen cells die quickly, and the body struggles to replace them. Patients can suffer from acute pain or chronic pain, and from anemia and organ damage. An estimated 100,000 Americans have the disease.

Rodgers' most recent work has focused on new procedures for transplanting bone marrow stem cells from a healthy donor — usually a sibling — into a patient with sickle cell disease.

Typically, the patient must have most of his or her own bone marrow stem cells killed off through chemotherapy or radiation before the procedure.

Rodgers has tested a procedure that killed off fewer of the patient's own stem cells — just enough for the donor cells to move in and start making healthy blood cells — in a trial of about 35 patients.

He said the procedure has reduced the painful chemotherapy at the start of the process, and helped patients to later be weaned off post-transplant immunosuppressive drugs.

"It's less toxic on both sides," Rodgers said. "The result seems quite durable. Because it requires less intensive chemotherapy and radiation, this is something that could be exportable to other facilities."

While the new treatment shows promise, Rodgers said, only about 25 percent of sickle cell patients have a matching donor.

"We still have a long way to go before we have a curative therapy," he said

Rodgers said he was flattered to be included among the finalists for a Heyman medal. He met other finalists at an event in Washington last month and came away impressed with his fellow federal employees.

"Often we are the brunt of a lot of comments and criticism and derision," he said. He said he was inspired by the "great and selfless work" done by federal workers.

Rodgers is one of seven finalists who work in Maryland. Others include cancer and genetics researchers at NIH, two men who coordinated the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons at sea, an employee working to prevent cyberattacks, a researcher focused on antibiotics in poultry and a physicist.

Michael Gerber of Howard County is being honored as part of a National Weather Service team that developed emergency weather alerts that are broadcast to smartphones.

Gerber and his team worked for several years with emergency management officials, government regulators and the wireless industry on the system, which uses radio signals from cellphone towers to send out 90-character warnings of hurricanes, tornadoes and flash floods to every phone in the area. Newer phones receive the alerts automatically; a user must manually disable them.

Since the system was put in place in 2012, Gerber has heard dozens of stories of people receiving the alerts and taking shelter to avoid tornadoes — a camp counselor in Connecticut who moved kids from a soccer dome into a sturdy building in the nick of time; worshipers in an Illinois church who fled to the basement before a tornado blew through.

"It's very rewarding because we spent years" on the project, Gerber said. "Then you get the big payday, if you will, and that payday is the reward of saving lives. It's a tremendous feeling."

Gerber, a meteorologist, and his information technology colleague Robert Bunge and their team are finalists in the homeland security and law enforcement category.

Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, has spent his career with the National Weather Service, including four years in Idaho working on wildfire forecasts. A native of Randallstown, he eventually returned to the area to work at NWS headquarters in Silver Spring.

Gerber said the next step for the alert system is to modify it so the alerts pop up on tablets and be featured in smartphone apps.

"I want to ensure that our alert information is integrated across the widest range of consumer electronics," he said.

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Federal award finalists

Dozens of federal workers have been honored as finalists for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, sponsored annually by the Partnership for Public Service. Eight medal winners are to be announced in the fall. Finalists who are based in Maryland include:

•Hyun Soon Lillehoj, a senior research molecular biologist at the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, for research on the use of antibiotics in commercial poultry. She is a finalist for the career achievement medal.

•Steven A. Rosenberg, chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, for developing cancer treatments using the body's own immune system and genetically engineered anti-tumor cells. He is a finalist for the career achievement medal.

•Gretchen K. Campbell, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, for work in an emerging field of physics called atomtronics. She is a finalist for the "Call to Service" medal.

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•Robert Bunge, Michael Gerber and the National Weather Service Emergency Alerts Team, who developed weather alerts that are broadcast to smartphones. They are finalists for the homeland security and law enforcement medal.

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•Ron Ross, a fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, for instituting a risk assessment system to protect federal computer networks from cyberattacks. He is a finalist for the homeland security and law enforcement medal.

•Timothy A. Blades of the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Aberdeen and Paul S. Gilmour of the U.S. Maritime Administration in Washington. They led a team that destroyed Syria's chemical weapons at sea. They are finalists for the national security and international affairs medal.

•Griffin P. Rodgers, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the NIH in Bethesda, for developing the first effective drug treatment for sickle cell disease. He is a finalist for the science and environment medal.

•Jean C. Zenklusen, director of the Cancer Genome Atlas Program Office, and Carolyn Hutter, team leader at the National Human Genome Research Institute, at the NIH in Bethesda. Their Cancer Genome Atlas Team has mapped gene sequences for more than 30 types of cancer. They are finalists for the science and environment medal.

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