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UCSF Cardiology
Transforming medicine through innovation and collaboration.
Department of Medicine

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Melissa Burroughs Pena

Photo credit: Elisabeth Fall.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading killer in the US and throughout the Americas – and Dr. Melissa Burroughs Peña, a cardiologist with a keen interest in Latin America, is an emerging leader in improving heart health across the region.

The widespread availability of fast food, growing rates of obesity and diabetes, and low access to preventive treatments such as statins contribute to the "perfect storm" of heart disease that is impacting Latin America, said Dr. Burroughs Peña. Unfortunately, it also hits patients at much younger ages than the US.

"It’s not just grandmothers having heart attacks, but people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who are supporting families and can no longer can work," said Dr. Burroughs Peña. "It can sink a family very quickly, and is devastating to local communities and national economies."

Dr. Burroughs Peña grew up in Atlanta, where her father was a hospital administrator, and wanted to become a doctor since age three. Her high school Spanish teacher cultivated global and cultural awareness in addition to teaching the language. As a college student, Dr. Burroughs Peña spent a summer in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. "We met with all kinds of people, including physicians, and after that summer I was just hooked," she said.

After graduating from Emory University with bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and human biology, she attended Harvard Medical School, then completed internal medicine residency at UCSF and cardiology and advanced echocardiography fellowships at Duke University, where she also earned a master of science in global health. She joined the UCSF faculty in 2015.

She has returned to Latin America many times for training and research. Some of her early projects focused on HIV, since many global health efforts arose in the ’80s and ’90s in response to the AIDS epidemic. She frequently collaborates with researchers in HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, partnering with existing research sites to investigate cardiovascular disease.

During cardiology fellowship, she moved to Peru for a year with her husband, infant daughter, mother and the family Chihuahua. She helped conduct a study of cardiovascular risk factors in multiple settings, including rural, urban, high altitude and sea level environments. Dr. Burroughs Peña performed echocardiograms – ultrasounds of the heart – of nearly 200 participants, and also learned about their barriers to care, such as difficulty accessing low-cost medicines. "I think the best kind of research comes from the ground up, hearing people talk about their problems and what they need," she said.

Because of her research, she developed a particular interest in echocardiography. "It’s a powerful tool, because it’s so portable and inexpensive," she said. "I can take an ultrasound machine the size of a thick laptop, and use it in any part of the world for research or clinical work." She has even brought it into the living rooms of homebound study participants in Lima.

Dr. Burroughs Peña hopes to apply her research towards shaping national and global health policy. "It’s a way to have a big impact on a lot of people, especially with chronic disease," she said. "A lot of our patients’ decisions are informed by their environment – for example, if there’s a grocery store near where they work or live, what it offers, and how much it costs…. The thing that drives me is looking at how poverty puts people at risk for cardiovascular disease. What can we intervene on from a policy standpoint to prevent cardiovascular disease in low-income communities?"

Dr. Burroughs Peña thinks that the UCSF Division of Cardiology is uniquely positioned to be a world leader in global cardiovascular health. "We’ve got very strong global health at UCSF, as well as resources and support both within the University and our city," she said. "I’m excited to be here when we’re growing this aspect of the Division."

Dr. Burroughs Peña is married to Eslier Peña, a chef. Together they have two young children, Mariah and Marcel.