A key to Byrne’s success is his character. He comes
to work and makes each individual he encounters — whether a patient, parent, staff member or student — feel as though there’s no one else more important to him at that moment. And as he points to a group of framed photos in his office, it’s clear that this loyalty to others drives his relentless pursuit for better therapies.
“These kids are my motivation,” he said.
His impact takes on many facets. Families relocate to Gainesville, high school students choose UF, fellow faculty members travel across the world (sometimes in costume) to visit kids and budding scientists choose to study genetics as their life’s work, with the goal of improving gene therapies.
After Gina and George Fox’s infant son, Phoenix, was diagnosed in 2002 with Pompe disease, the young family moved to Gainesville from the Florida Keys, so Phoenix could receive the care and innovative therapies offered at UF by Byrne and his team.
“We became friends pretty much right out of the gate because of the rareness of Phoenix’s condition, and we could talk to him,” George Fox said of his family’s relationship with Byrne. “To this day, if I have any questions I can text him and he’ll answer me. He’s so knowledgeable about the condition but he’s also so easy to talk to.”
In 2010, sisters Maddie and Emma Crowley, who each had recently been diagnosed with Pompe, traveled with their parents from Philadelphia to Gainesville to find answers to what they only knew as an incurable, degenerative disease that would affect the rest of their lives. In Byrne, the two young girls met someone who would become a lifesaver and a life changer.
“Dr. Byrne is incredibly real and thoughtful,” Crowley said. “He will do all these tests with us as patients and then will go out to dinner with us or just be crazy. One time, on a tour of UF when we were younger, he snuck us onto Florida Field and ran across the field with Maddie.”
Today, Maddie is a UF student and Emma works as a research coordinator in Byrne’s lab.
Barbara Smith, PT, PhD, an assistant professor in the colleges of Medicine and Public Health and Health Professions and a colleague of Byrne’s at the Powell Center for Rare Disease Research and Therapy, often travels with him and no longer thinks twice about donning a Halloween costume and arriving at a patient’s home as “Star Wars” villain Darth Vader, while Byrne dresses up as a character from the film “Avatar.”
Angela McCall, PhD ’17, a recent graduate of the UF College of Medicine biomedical sciences graduate program, attributes her success to Byrne, her mentor, and his ability to not only teach students about genetics and research, but also how to be well-rounded individuals who can offer more than the facts.
McCall and other recent doctoral program graduates mentored by Byrne have gone on to continue their research at institutions like Duke University, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, with the goal of studying and using gene therapies to treat diseases.
“I credit a lot of what I’m doing now to him,” McCall said. “I’m able to do these things because of what he taught and required of his students.”
The FDA approval of a gene therapy treatment in December for people with an inherited eye disease was a significant move, says Byrne, that provides a road map for making other gene therapies available for even more diseases. Approval is “critical to the sustainability” of this treatment method, he said.
“If we have enough evidence that this idea of a replacement gene is safe,” Byrne said, “then we can show it will improve lives and people will adopt that idea.
“I think we’re at the tipping point for that.”