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Anne Dixon: Making Inroads in the Link between Obesity and Asthma

May 2014
Anne Dixon, MD

Anne Dixon, MD

Anne Dixon, MD, can quote the statistic without a second thought: “Approximately 250,000 new cases of asthma per year in the U.S. are related to obesity,” she says in a phone conversation from her office at Fletcher Allen Healthcare and the University of Vermont.

For over a decade, Dr. Dixon has led translational research and clinical trials to better understand the link between obesity and asthma and fill the gaps. At Vermont, Dr. Dixon is director of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, a sizable clinical and research and teaching division with 17 MDs and four PhDs. She is also professor of medicine and director of Clinical Research at the Vermont Lung Center.

Traditionally, there has been little interaction between the fields of obesity and asthma, which has left a dearth of research on the mechanisms of asthma in the obese and new therapies specifically targeted to that patient population, according to the 2010 ATS workshop report “Obesity and Asthma.”

“Back in the early 2000s, it was just beginning to emerge that obesity was a major risk factor for asthma—we had no idea what was causing that relationship,” Dr. Dixon says. “A lot people were ignoring it, but we became very interested in it. If you go to any clinic, you will see there’s a tremendous burden of disease in people suffering with obesity. For a long time, people just said ‘they need to lose weight and it will go away.’ I never yet met one person who wouldn’t love to lose weight, but that’s a very hard thing to do. So we must realize there’s a patient population that needs our help, and we need to work with them.”

Dr. Dixon, co-editor of Obesity and the Lung, published in 2012 by Humana Press (New York) and author of several papers and abstracts on the subject, is commended by her colleagues for being able to see beyond immediate solutions. “The interaction between obesity and lung disease is new and incredibly exciting field of research, and Anne has been at the forefront,” says Polly Parsons, MD, chair of the Department of Medicine at Vermont, who recruited Dr. Dixon to Vermont from the University of North Carolina in 2001.“She moves the field forward not just through her work and publications, but also through a biannual conference she initiated that brings leading experts from around the world together to advance the field.”

Many patients who meet Dr. Dixon, come from various socioeconomic backgrounds, and the challenges the underserved patients face are different from those in larger metropolitan areas, she notes. “The rural underserved have challenges that are just as big but less attention is focused on them,” Dr. Dixon says. “Access to services becomes very difficult. It’s not down the street or in the next borough—it’s a few counties away. Just getting a ride can be a challenge.”

Dr. Dixon is also principal investigator of a recently completed Study of Asthma and Nasal Steroids (STAN), which is a multicenter, randomized, placebo-controlled trial to determine the efficacy and mechanisms of action of nasal steroids in the treatment of asthma. The study, which examined 380 adults and children, is performed through the American Lung Association Asthma Clinical Research Center network.

Teaching and mentoring medical students, residents, and fellows is also one of the most gratifying aspects of her career. “They teach me as much as I teach them. I love having the opportunity to teach and mentor the next generation,” Dr. Dixon says. “They make you think and understand things on a level that I didn’t necessarily do before.”

Dr. Dixon counts among her mentors Dr. Parsons, Charles Irvin, PhD, director of the Vermont Lung Center, and pulmonologist Joan G. Clark, MD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, also where Dr. Dixon served as an instructor following her fellowship in pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The interaction between obesity and lung disease is new and incredibly exciting field of research, and Anne has been at the forefront.— Polly Parsons, MD

An ATS member since her fellowship in 1996, Dr. Dixon has served on several committees, chairing the ATS Membership Committee from 2009-13. “The ATS is an important community for me,” Dr. Dixon says. “It provides me with peers who care about the same thing. We get very focused with what we’re doing locally, but the ATS helps us think about things on a global level.”

Dr. Dixon arrived with an international perspective. Originally hailing from Plymouth, England, Dr. Dixon earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Cambridge and Oxford universities, and also completed an internship in England. She then relocated, completing her residency in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. “I came the old fashioned way—my husband’s American,” Dr. Dixon says with a laugh.

With her husband, Dr. Dixon raises a 16-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. Taking advantage of her state’s many outdoor offerings, Dr. Dixon and her family hike, kayak, and ski. “They keep me on my toes and they keep me grounded as well,” Dr. Dixon says.

Life in ATS

ATS Member Since: 1996

Primary Assembly: Allergy Immunology & Inflammation

Secondary Assembly: Respiratory Structure & Function

“Going to the International Conference and meeting with people whose articles you have read and know about and meeting with leaders in the field—that’s what initially attracted me to the ATS.”

Last Reviewed: September 2017