From left, Princess Lea of Belgium looks on as UTHealth's Dianna Milewicz, M.D., Ph.D., meets Princess Marie-Esmeralda of Belgium.

From left, Princess Lea of Belgium looks on as UTHealth’s Dianna Milewicz, M.D., Ph.D., meets Princess Marie-Esmeralda of Belgium.

Dianna Milewicz, M.D., Ph.D., is the first woman to receive the Visiting Professorship Award from the Fondation Cardiologique Princesse Liliane in Belgium.

It is also the first time a faculty member from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) received the award. Milewicz is director of the Division of Medical Genetics, President George H.W. Bush Chair of Cardiovascular Medicine and vice-chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at John P. and Kathrine G. McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. Other awardees have included physicians and researchers from Harvard University, Johns Hopkins Medical School, Stanford University and Oxford University.

Milewicz was nominated for the award by Julie De Backer, M.D., Ph.D., from the Center for Medical Genetics, Ghent University Hospital, Belgium.

“As the recipient of the Princesse Liliane Professorship, I was not only honored by the Belgium royal family and members of the Belgium government, but also by my colleagues in Belgium and throughout Europe. It was a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Milewicz said.

The Princess Lilian Foundation bestows the renowned visiting professorship every two years to foster interactions between Belgian researchers and internationally established experts.

As part of the award, Milewicz, who directs the John Ritter Research Program at McGovern Medical School, recently gave four keynote lectures during a week of events, including the inaugural lecture to the Belgium royal family and other dignitaries, and the keynote lecture at a symposium attended by cardiovascular scientists from Europe.

She also had dinner with the royal family at Chatêau d’Argenteuil near Waterloo, spoke with University of Ghent students about their research and gave the keynote lecture at the Belgian Interuniversity Research Meeting on Aortic Disease in Brussels.

Milewicz was honored for her discoveries on the genetic basis of thoracic aortic aneurysms and dissections, intracranial aneurysms and early onset ischemic strokes. Her research has identified nine genes for familiar thoracic aortic disease, which have provided insight into the underlying molecular pathogenesis of the disease. Members of families who have been identified with one of the genes have been able to be monitored and in many cases, have undergone surgery to prevent the dissection or rupture of their thoracic aorta.

Her group has recently identified a gene for inherited thoracic aortic disease associated with bicuspid aortic valve (BAV). As novel genes for inherited thoracic aortic disease are identified, they have defined clinical features associated with each gene to instruct the clinical management of these patients. In addition, mouse models of genes identified in human vascular diseases, including ACTA2 and MYH11, have been engineered to investigate the connection between mutated genes and the molecular pathways leading to vascular diseases, including aortic dissections and ischemic strokes.

In addition to the translational research program, Milewicz directs the M.D./Ph.D. Program at The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston, which is a joint program between UTHealth and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She actively mentors trainees in her laboratory, as well as fellows and junior faculty who are initiating their own independent research programs.