Mark Lowe, MD, PhD

Mark Lowe, MD, PhD, Center for Rare Disease Therapy
Chief, Division of Gastroenterology, 
Hepatology, and Nutrition

Dr. Mark Lowe became interested in chronic pancreatitis in children in the late 1980s, while he was completing his training in pediatric gastroenterology. The causes of this rare and disabling condition were poorly understood, treatment options were very limited, and few physicians took an interest in the disease—but Dr. Lowe saw an opportunity to make a difference.

After earning a doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania in 1977, Dr. Lowe worked at the National Institutes of Health for five years, studying pediatric metabolism. He then decided to go to medical school, graduating from the University of Miami School of Medicine in Florida in 1984. He completed his internship, residency, and fellowships in pediatrics and pediatric gastroenterology at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

After holding several faculty positions at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Dr. Lowe came to Pittsburgh in 2003 as chief of the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and a visiting professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Dr. Lowe is board certified in both pediatrics and pediatric gastroenterology.

The pancreas has two important functions in the body, Dr. Lowe explains: helping digest food and producing insulin, which the body needs to convert food into energy. In children with chronic pancreatitis, the pancreas does not properly do its job of helping digest food. Inflammation causes scarring of the pancreas and abdominal pain. Children with chronic pancreatitis often need to be hospitalized or take strong pain medicines to control their pain. Many of them develop diabetes, a chronic disease in which the pancreas cannot make insulin.

At the Center for Rare Disease Therapy, says Dr. Lowe, families will find a team of doctors who understand chronic pancreatitis, have a wealth of experience caring for children who have it, and can answer the many questions families often have about this disease.

“Families want to understand what’s happening to their child and what’s likely to happen with the disease in the future,” he says. “We take the time to answer their questions. Our family-centered approach to care helps us relate to the families and helps the families to better understand the tests and treatment we are proposing to do.”

Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is one of a very few centers in the United States with the expertise to offer a novel surgical treatment to children with chronic pancreatitis. In this procedure, the surgeon first removes the child’s pancreas completely. Then the surgeon extracts the islet cells (the cells that produce insulin) from the pancreas and returns them to the patient by means of an infusion into the liver, where they start producing insulin again. This procedure is called total pancreatectomy with autologous islet cell transplantation.

“Our team of surgeons and doctors are experts at performing this complex procedure and in caring for the children afterward,” says Dr. Lowe. “Children who have had this procedure need to take medicine for the rest of their lives to help them digest food. But our experience shows that many of them will not develop diabetes, most will no longer have chronic pain, and their quality of life will be much improved.”

Dr. Lowe is actively involved in research aimed at developing new treatments for chronic pancreatitis in children. He directs a laboratory study looking at why certain genetic defects lead to chronic pancreatitis. “Learning more about why this disease occurs will help us find new and better ways of treating it,” he says.

He is also an investigator in an international study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, to create a database of information about chronic pancreatitis in children. “This study will help us better understand the causes, complications, and outcomes of chronic pancreatitis in children,” he explains. “As new therapies are found, we will be ready to begin testing them in clinical trials.”