Most Interesting People 2011: Steve Nissen

Steve Nissen

Chair of cardiovascular medicine, Cleveland Clinic | 62

It's a story with all the intrigue and plot twists of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Pharmaceutical giant strikes it rich with a highly effective drug to treat diabetes, benefiting hundreds of thousands in the U.S. alone. An activist doctor discovers previously unpublished clinical data showing a 43 percent increase in heart attacks from the drug, causing tens of thousands of needless deaths.

The doctor goes public, drawing the wrath of big pharma, until Senate hearings unravel the truth: The company knew about the drug's dangers all along.

The story is true. The drug is Avandia, made by GlaxoSmithKline. The activist is Dr. Steven Nissen, the balding, spectacled chair of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. And he knows exactly who will play him if an Avandia movie is ever made.

"There is an actor who looks a lot like me," he deadpans. "Brad Pitt."

Nissen is plain-spoken, media-savvy and devoted to speaking truth whether it's welcome or not. While he's been vocal on the safety of drugs like Avandia, Vioxx and Vytorin, he remains one of pharma's most highly sought-after consultants.

"I try to maintain that balance • between developing new drugs and pointing out those that don't help people," says Nissen, who was named one of Time's 100 most influential people in 2007. "Some people think, This guy's anti-pharmaceutical, and the answer is absolutely not."

Nissen insists all consulting fees, which he estimates at hundreds of thousands over the past five years, go to charities, currently the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Since joining the Clinic in 1992, Nissen has worked in plenty of less movie-worthy areas. He still sees patients and conducts research into applications for miniaturized ultrasound equipment.

Nissen has been married for more than 30 years to his college sweetheart, Linda Butler, an acclaimed fine arts photographer. Later this year, they're building a solar house in Cleveland Heights, which is where they'll retire. If he ever does.

"I don't really have any hobbies," he says. "It's a problem. If I were to ever retire, I'm not sure I'd know what to do with myself."

Making a career as a physician agitator has its disadvantages, Nissen says. But he has no regrets. "I always wanted to make a difference," he says. "And I think I have."

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