Mario Castro, M.D., a specialist in pulmonary care and 1988 graduate of the UMKC School of Medicine, received the school’s prestigious E. Grey Dimond Take Wing Award and delivered the annual Take Wing lectureship on May 17.
After congratulating and offering encouraging words to School of Medicine graduates two days earlier during a commencement ceremony at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, Castro spoke on the care of patients with severe asthma, a major focus of his research career.
He also discussed respiratory health in the developing work and his work to battle COVID-19 on a global level. Castro serves as principal investigator and director of Frontiers, a clinical and translational research institute at the University of Kansas. The organization collaborates with leaders of health care institutions throughout the region including the UMKC School of Medicine.
While much of the country anxiously awaited the first vaccines to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, Castro was leading a group of researchers in the Kansas City area with a much broader focus.
The goal was a global vaccine that could be taken to the farthest reaches of the world. Vaccines that were being produced for distribution in the United States required deep freezing, said Castro, whose team studied the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“If you’re in the middle of Africa, that won’t work very well,” Castro said. “We needed a vaccine like the AstraZeneca that just requires simple refrigeration, that you can take in a cooler and you can take it anywhere with you.”
Working with partners throughout Kansas City, the collaborative embarked on one of the largest vaccine studies in the country. The study enrolled more than 500 participants in Kansas City who were part of an effort that has since developed the COVID vaccine most used world-wide.
The vaccine has been approved for use in more than 30 countries. More than 200 million doses have been applied. It is also part of the World Health Organization’s plan to reach those world’s lower socioeconomic countries.
Castro has already launched three additional National Institutes of Health-funded studies to combat COVID infection.
“It’s really been an honor to participate in and lead that effort in the midst of this pandemic,” Castro said. “It’s definitely been a help on a world-wide basis to get a vaccine that will be easy to transport and be more readily available around the world.”
Castro joined the KU School of Medicine in 2019 as chief of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine and vice chair for clinical and translational research. Before that, he spent 25 years in St. Louis at the Washington University School of Medicine where he oversaw the asthma and airway translational research unit that conducted as many as 30 clinical trials at a time.
A renowned leader in his specialty, he has received numerous honors for his work including two awards from the American Lung Association of Eastern Missouri and the CHEST Foundation’s Humanitarian Recognition Award.
“What UMKC always taught me well was how to take care of a patient and how to listen to a patient,” Castro said.
That training also paved the way for Castro to create the International Medical Assistance Foundation, an organization that has been reaching the underserved in Honduras.
He oversees a board that regularly sends volunteer teams of ENT, orthopedics, cardiology, neurology and other specialists to remote areas of Honduras. Twelve years ago, the Honduran government provided $3 million and Castro’s foundation raised another $3 million through church donations and fundraisers to build and supply a 100-bed hospital and clinic, Hospital Hermano Pedro, in Catacamas, Honduras.
Just prior to the onset of the COVID pandemic, Castro and his team saw and treated 1,300 pulmonary patients in less than a week at the hospital.
“I immigrated to this country in 1965,” said Castro, who was born in Matanzas, Cuba. “It’s been part of my blood to give back to those who are disadvantaged. We want to give back to those who are less fortunate and certainly it helps us appreciate what we have here in this country.”