It is with heartfelt sadness that we mourn the passing of James Heubi, MD, a renowned expert in the treatment of children with liver disease and inflammatory bowel disease who dedicated a 46-year career to Cincinnati Children’s and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
Dr. Heubi died Aug. 4, 2021, after a battle with cancer. He was 72.
Born in Indianapolis Nov. 13, 1948, Dr. Heubi earned his medical degree from the Indiana University School of Medicine and completed his residency at Riley Hospital for Children. He joined Cincinnati Children’s in 1975 as a Fellow in the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition.
He developed a passion for clinical research and became the Director of the Clinical Research Center in 1988 as well as the Associate Dean for Clinical Research at UC. He went on to administer the NIH-funded CIinical Translational Science Award as the Director of the Clinical Center for Translational Science and Training (CCTST)—a collaboration between the university, Cincinnati Children’s and the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center.
“As a clinician, he treated many children, restored smiles, and helped them grow well into adulthood. As a scientist, he developed a treatment that saved the livers and lives of children with bile acid defects. As a teacher, he guided many young physicians who now lead successful careers,” says Jorge Bezerra, MD, Director, Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition.
Dr. Heubi was a leading researcher in the field of bile acid defects. He worked for many years in conjunction with Kenneth Setchell, PhD, to develop a treatment that allowed children to avoid the need for a liver transplant to survive their condition. That new drug, called Cholbam, earned U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in 2015.
In 2016, Dr. Heubi served as President of the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition (NASPGHAN). He also served as a councilor of the NIH-Center for Research Resources.
In 2011, Dr. Heubi received the Daniel Drake Medal, the highest honor awarded by the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. He also received Founders Awards from the Midwest Society for Pediatric Research in 2006 and the Cincinnati Pediatric Society in 2010.
Dr. Heubi personally experienced the explosive growth of Cincinnati Children’s during his career. In 2014, he said this about the rapid evolution:
“Forty years ago, the GI department at Cincinnati Children’s was a remarkable place, but very different than it is now,” Heubi said. “There were only two physicians on staff, both generalists. No one was using endoscopes yet; we relied on needle liver biopsies, small intestinal biopsies with a stainless steel capsule and 25-centimeter rigid proctoscopes. In the 1990s, a lot of things started to align to make our program what it is today – visionary leadership, new technologies, opportunities to subspecialize and a focus on multidisciplinary care. The division’s growth became exponential.”
In his leadership role at the CCTST, Dr. Heubi served as a key force for collaboration between the faculty members of three intertwined institutions: Cincinnati Children’s, UC, and the VA Medical Center.
“Dr. Heubi was a driving force in creating the CCTST, which he served as co-director since its inception in 2005. He was an ardent supporter of translational research, both as a scientist and as an administrator helping to support the work of many others,” says Andrew Filak Jr., MD, Senior Vice President for Health Affairs and Dean of the UC College of Medicine.
The CCTST provides a wide range of research support for more than 3,600 academicians, including dozens of grants each year. Dr. Heubi was the principal investigator of the $23 million Clinical and Translational Science Award from the NIH in 2009, which was renewed in 2015 for $18.7 million and in 2020 for $22.1 million.
“Through his efforts, researchers have had significantly enhanced opportunities to produce translational research that has gone on to improve the lives of many,” Dr. Filak says.
“His vision was that the CCTST could amplify that research across the university to dramatically change outcomes, and in later years he became equally passionate about reducing health disparities and engaging the community in our research. He was tireless in his efforts to harness the resources of the CCTST in efforts to improve the health of our community,” says Jessica Kahn, MD, MPH, Director, Division of Adolescent and Transition Medicine.
“One of the things that people may not appreciate about Dr. Heubi is that he was the quintessential sponsor,” Dr. Kahn says. “He gave me opportunities that I almost certainly didn’t deserve, saw promise in me that I didn’t recognize, and gave me opportunities to lead in the CCTST that I never would have had without him.”
Active in his roles until very recently, Dr. Heubi will be missed by many at Cincinnati Children’s and beyond.
“Jim was one of my closest and dearest of friends,” says Dr. Setchell. “He and I worked together for 37 years in a strong physician/scientist partnership. Very few people can attest to the discovery of a single new disease yet alone several, or in getting a spectacularly successful treatment to market. Jim’s contributions to Cincinnati Children’s and UC have been extraordinary. He will be sorely missed.”
Michael Farrell, MD, who served 22 years as Chief of Staff at Cincinnati Children’s, recalls his own long and deep friendship with Dr. Heubi.
“I came here in 1974 and Jim arrived in 1975. Our kids went to the same grade school,” Dr. Farrell says. “Jim was interested in research from day one. While most of us were trying to treat the symptoms of disease and keep kids alive, he kept asking why. He spent many years asking why and now there’s a treatment that’s clinically available.”
Dr. Heubi is survived by his wife of 46 years, Margo, his daughters Elizabeth and Christine; son-in-law Michael Hazenfield, MD, and three grandchildren, Harper, Millie, and Whitman (Hazenfield). Christine Heubi, MD, is a surgeon at Cincinnati Children’s.
A funeral service will be held 9:30 am Aug. 14 at St. Rose Church, 2501 Riverside Drive, 45202 with a burial service to follow at Spring Grove Cemetery. Visitation will be from 4-8 pm Aug. 13 at Spring Grove Funeral Home Elden Good at 2620 Erie Avenue, 45208. Masks are required.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the James Heubi Fund at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center: http://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/donate. Please direct funds to “other” and type “James Heubi Fund.”
Dr. Heubi authored or co-authored more than 230 research publications. Among his works:
The Research Horizons blog features news and insights about the latest discoveries and innovations developed by the scientists of Cincinnati Children's. This blog does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.