A Father’s Influence: Why Raoul Manalac, MD, Left Full-Time Medical Practice for the World of Research

Released: Monday, December 02, 2019

In movies about scientific discoveries, there is always a single moment on which everything turns.  A flash of inspiration, a sudden insight, a breakthrough that changes everything.

For Dr. Raoul Manalac, Medical Director of Pennington Biomedical’s model diabetes clinic, it was a conversation with his father.  A longtime general practitioner in Baker, Dr. Manalac’s father is now treating the children and grandchildren of his original patients.

“He is seeing the cycle of metabolic disease move through these younger generations, through children, through preteens and teens,” Dr. Manalac said. “He told me that we have to stop treating everything as it happens.  We have to start treating the root of what the health issue is.”

His father’s concerns piqued Dr. Manalac’s curiosity.  He sought the advice of Dr. Frank Greenway, Chief Medical Officer at Pennington Biomedical and one of Dr. Manalac’s mentors.  Dr. Greenway advised Dr. Manalac to seek certification for obesity medicine.

“Obesity underlies so many of the disease processes that we see becoming health crises today,” Dr. Manalac said. “Obesity medicine kind of ties together everything that we see in primary and even specialty care.”

At the time, Dr. Manalac worked full-time as a hospitalist at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.  He had moved from Baltimore back to Baton Rouge in mid-2014 to be closer to his family.  But after a few years as a clinician, Dr. Manalac felt the pull of academic medicine growing stronger.  He had been a student and postdoctoral researcher at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.  When he learned in late 2018 that Pennington Biomedical had an opening, Dr. Manalac made the leap.  He arrived with a number of goals.

“One of my ambitions is to take what Pennington Biomedical is so good at, research in population studies, basic science, and clinical and translational science, and bring it into the model diabetes clinic,” he said. “The idea is to build a pipeline and a roadmap from discovery to dissemination, going from where we learn about a pathway to making sure we treat that pathway in the patient and the clinic.”

He hopes to extend the work of Dr. Greenway and Dr. Daniel Hsia, Associate Professor in Pennington Biomedical’s Clinical Trials Unit.  Both physicians have focused on treatments for obesity and diabetes.

“I would love for the work that I do to be a piece of how Louisiana moves up from 49th, 50th, or 51st in every health statistic ranking to having a healthier populace, not only in Baton Rouge and the surrounding area but the state at large,” Dr. Manalac said.

Manalac has firsthand experience in improving health outcomes.  While in med school, he and Dr. Evan Rusoja founded Empowerment Health, a nonprofit that provides prenatal and postnatal advice to mothers in Afghanistan.

The nonprofit was conceived when Dr. Rusoja went to Afghanistan for a portion of his training.  While there, he sent Dr. Manalac a message: “These people have nothing. We need to do something for them.”

Dr. Manalac’s reply? “Tell me what we need to do, and we’ll do it.”

They initially planned to start a hospital, but they quickly discovered a more pressing need.  Afghanistan had some of the highest rates of death among pregnant women and fetuses near delivery.  Instead of a hospital, they built infrastructure that trained community health workers to offer advice to pregnant women and those who had recently given birth.

The two doctors oversaw the nonprofit for a little over 10 years.  Now with other professional obligations, the founders are transferring those services to another nonprofit in Afghanistan. 

Dr. Manalac said he still plans to do philanthropic work ­ – once he has his life arranged properly – that focuses on health education and education for women and children.

“It may be naïve, but I feel that’s one of the best ways to achieve a lot of the health outcomes that we’re looking for and influence a lot of the global issues that we face,” Dr. Manalac said.  “A lot of problems could be solved by ensuring that all portions of our populace are educated so they can have access to success and the life that everyone would like.”

In the meantime, Dr. Manalac hopes to find a way to commercialize some of Pennington Biomedical’s treatment discoveries and generate a revenue source.  The money would allow scientists to spend more time on research and less time pursuing grant funding, especially if the projects weren’t “popular” from a National Institutes of Health perspective.

“If I could do that, I would consider my time here a success,” he said.

For more information on how you can support this and other projects at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, visit www.pbrf.org.