December 2008 Feature: Dr. Robert Recker, director of Creighton’s Osteoporosis Research Center

By Brian E. Clark

Dr. Robert Recker, head of Creighton University’s Osteoporosis Research Center, has come a long way since his days as a pupil in a one-room country school in rural Nebraska.

And he owes much of his success, he says, to Creighton. He’s been at the Jesuit university for nearly all of his academic and professional career.

“I appreciate the values here,” says Recker, one of the country’s top bone biology specialists and a former president of the American Society for Bone Mineral Research. “That’s a large part of the reason I’ve stayed, along with the opportunities I’ve had here, as well.”

Recker grew up on a hog farm west of Grand Island that was owned by Norden Laboratories, a veterinary pharmaceutical company, and managed by his father. Three thousand pigs were raised on the farm each year for the production of the company’s hog cholera and erysipelas vaccination products.

After high school, he moved to Omaha and enrolled at Creighton as an undergraduate. The year was 1956.

Other than four years in the Air Force as a medical intern and then a flight surgeon, he’s been at Creighton ever since either as a student, trainee or faculty member.

He said he was attracted to medicine from an early age and had a strong interest in vertebrate biology. He initially wanted to go to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and become a veterinarian.

But when an academic advisor suggested medical school – because getting into vet school was exceedingly competitive – he switched both his career and university choices.

“Medical school seemed like a better idea, and I haven’t looked back ever since,” he says.

When Recker was finishing his medical residency, he said he began looking around for the highest quality research going on at Creighton.

“It was in Dr. Robert Heaney’s lab,” he recalls.  “I wanted to taste research and I quickly discovered that the work he was doing was world-class.

“Over time, osteoporosis became a fascination for me,” Recker notes, who was a research fellow in 1969 and has been focusing on bone research ever since.   “It’s been a great choice.”

Recker is perhaps best known for a study in which he, molecular geneticist Mark Johnson and several others found a gene mutation causing bones to be twice as massive as “normal” bones. Using the genetic material from these “super bones” that were discovered virtually by accident in a Nebraska-based family, the two have been working on what some might call “nature’s cure” for osteoporosis.

A major pharmaceutical company has partnered in this research and is attempting to identify a small molecule that when given to patients will duplicate the natural effects of this gene mutation.

“This mutation is important to help figure out how bones get massive while remaining normally shaped and resistant to fracture,” Recker says. “If we can develop a drug that would do what this mutation did, we’d have the answer to osteoporosis.”

(Click here for a special feature focusing on this discovery.)

Recker, 69, says he has had a number of lucrative faculty offers from other institutions.

“But I didn’t take these offers because I like what I’m doing here a lot,” adds Recker, who also is the current president of the National Osteoporosis Foundation. “And as the years have passed, the faculty and student culture here at Creighton has become even more important to me. I really appreciate the culture here at Creighton.”