Retirement Honor: Keith Meyer, MD

Keith Meyer, MD

The Department of Medicine is proud to honor Keith Meyer, MD, professor, Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, who retired on February 1, 2021.  

Dr. Meyer joined the Department of Medicine in 1988. A pulmonologist and critical care physician, he was the medical director for the UW Health lung transplant program for 22 years and the director of the UW Health interstitial lung disease program for 10 years. Since 1996, he has had a leadership role in the UW Adult Cystic Fibrosis Center, starting as associate director and becoming director in 2010.

Dr. Meyer has led multiple multi-center clinical trials and conducted laboratory research on animal models of lung disease. He holds four patents, has chaired several national or international clinical guideline task forces and is a 2009 recipient of the American Thoracic Society’s James B. Skatrud Award for Teaching and Mentorship.

During your time here, what would you consider your most significant accomplishments?

  • Lung transplantation: When I was appointed in 1988, I was immediately asked to become involved with the nascent lung transplant program. I worked with the thoracic surgeons to establish protocols for evaluating candidates and managing recipients through clinic follow-ups and surveillance. I did my best to optimize our program and its results, performing a considerable amount of research, speaking and organizing/chairing sessions at conferences, and publishing scholarly work. It was very gratifying to see our program gradually attain international recognition for being among the best both nationally and internationally.
  • Cystic fibrosis: I had started to see adult patients with cystic fibrosis (CF) in 1985 when I was a first-year pulmonary and critical care medicine fellow here. Dr. Jerry Zimmerman, who led the UW pediatric critical care program, and I were able to link lung function decline to neutrophilic inflammation and lack of protease inhibition in patients’ lungs as I performed bronchoscopies in volunteers with CF. Eventually, I also collaborated with Professor Gerd Döring and Dieter Worlitsch at the University of Tübingen in Germany, among others, to examine oxygen tension in CF respiratory secretions. One of our collaborative publications is among the most cited publications in the CF literature and nearly the most cited manuscript for the Journal of Clinical Investigation. I also personally managed nearly all of the first 100 young adults who underwent lung transplantation at our center.
  • Interstitial lung disease: I was very interested in research on mechanisms of pulmonary fibrosis, and participated in research projects that involved bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) and BAL analysis on specimens obtained from patients with ILD. Eventually, I chaired an international task force that developed a clinical practice guideline on the use of BAL in the diagnosis and management of ILD, and I chaired the American College of Chest Physicians Diffuse Lung Disease NetWork.
  • Aging: I found that there were changes in bronchoalveolar lavage constituents that were strongly associated with advancing age that fit into an evolving theory of “inflamm-aging.” I published many manuscripts on the aging lung and was recognized internationally as an expert in this area.
  • Adverse drug effects: I co-chaired a task force that developed a clinical practice guideline for the monitoring of various drugs used to manage patients with diffuse lung disease as well as lung transplant recipients.
  • Publications: I edited or co-edited five books and a number of themed journal issues that focused on interstitial lung diseases, lung transplantation, consequences of gastroesophageal reflux for the lungs, and consequences of advancing age for lung function in the absence or presence of lung disorders.
  • Clinical trials: I was the UW site principal investigator for over 70 FDA-registered randomized clinical trials investigating new drug therapies for respiratory infections, ILD, airway inflammation/damage due to CF or non-CF bronchiectasis, asthma, COPD, and lung allograft rejection. I also consulted with sponsors on clinical trial development and analysis of data obtained from ongoing and completed trials.

What have been the most personally gratifying aspects of your work?

  • Interacting with my patients: I loved my interactions with my patients, and they taught me lots about lung disorders and the struggles with which they had to cope. It was very gratifying to have them trust my counsel and our joint decision-making.
  • Teaching and mentoring: I also loved teaching to enhance learners’ knowledge and also to learn, in turn, from them. I greatly enjoyed working with trainees to uncover published literature to assist our patient care, and I especially enjoyed mentoring trainees and writing up our experiences with clinical or laboratory research for publication.
  • Caring for young adults with CF: A sea change in both longevity and quality of life evolved over the decades that I cared for young adults with CF. Now, in 2021, the majority of patients can receive phenomenal drugs that make their abnormal gene product in cell membranes work well enough to greatly improve their lung function. It was also rewarding to help nearly 100 of our CF patients make a timely decision to undergo lung transplant (and subsequently manage them).
  • Interactions with colleagues outside of UW: It was gratifying to form friendships and collaborations with colleagues at other institutions around the world. Our collaborations led to novel research projects and many publications. Getting together at meetings and co-chairing symposia or postgraduate courses with my colleagues was immensely enjoyable, and we helped educate both peers and trainees in cutting edge basic, translational, and clinical research.
  • Clinical trials: Being a clinical trial investigator allowed me to both help my patients and to establish whether novel therapies could significantly improve the well-being and extend survival for all patients with the conditions targeted by the trials.
  • Going from bedside to bench and back to the bedside: At times when caring for my patients, I have been able to recognize problems for which there was uncharted territory. The next step was often to look for other patients who may have had similar problems to see if a unique trend, association or link could be found. Sometimes this meant going to the bench to perform experiments to try to gain insight into a clinical observation. In other situations, generating a case series or even a case report could contribute meaningfully to evolving knowledge on a disease or health issue.
  • Asthma research: I especially enjoyed working with Dr. Nizar Jarjour and the asthma research team performing research bronchoscopies that provided valuable information concerning mechanisms involved in the pathogenesis of allergic asthma.

Any particularly fond memories?

  • Doing science with my father-in-law: My father-in-law, Robert Auerbach, was the Harold R. Wolfe Professor of Zoology and had a large lab with many projects and grad students doing developmental biology and angiogenesis research. Together, we established a model of beryllium-induced lung disease in mice in which we could tease out the role of histocompatibility genes in susceptibility to granuloma formation with the hope that such a model could shed light on the role of HLA in human pulmonary sarcoidosis and chronic beryllium disease.
  • My mentors, colleagues and staff: Working with colleagues gave one a sense of community and striving to help our patients and advance medical knowledge. I can’t say enough about our lung transplant coordinators who were constantly handling an incredible workload and working overtime to make sure that our transplant patients had the very best outcomes that we could provide.

What are you looking forward to in retirement?

  • Helping with the UW Odyssey Project: I have been awed by what my wife, Emily Auerbach, has accomplished since she started the UW Odyssey Program in 2003 for adults below the poverty level. As the program continues to evolve and expands to help children and prisoners caught up in the criminal justice system, I want to help out with various aspects of Odyssey as best as I can.
  • Being a parent and grandparent: I am fortunate to have three wonderful children and three beautiful granddaughters. We are a close-knit family, and we all support each other.
  • Enjoying the outdoors: I am fortunate to live on land where we have a vibrant prairie, woods, and a Lake Mendota shoreline and can enjoy the wonders of nature with my granddaughters. I am teaching my granddaughter how to fish in Lake Mendota and occasionally doing some serious fishing myself. I also have a 21-foot Precision that I sail on Lake Mendota, and we have a power launch for family cruises around Lake Mendota and the Yahara chain.
  • Writing and photography: Throughout my career, I have written short stories about various experiences in my life, and I plan to write a memoir about my life as a medical student and physician. I also thought about going into photography as a profession, but I ended up just having it as an avid hobby.
  • Enjoying and participating in the performing arts: I hope to be able to perform a bit more in music theater and opera in the future. We love attending the Madison Symphony and Madison Opera productions as well as community theater productions, and we hope we can start doing so again in the near future.