Dr. Priya Kishnani Works to Improve the Lives of Children with Genetic Diseases

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Dr. Priya Kishnani has spent her career as a pediatric medical genetics specialist helping her patients get through their some of their most difficult years

Priya Kishnani
Photo by Shawn Rocco, Duke Health

By Morgan Cartier Weston

Dr. Priya Kishnani grew up in a family of physicians, including her mother, a pediatrician, in Mumbai (then Bombay), India. “My mother ran a charitable program, caring for the underserved and indigent throughout her life,” Dr. Kishnani says. “I saw firsthand what it really meant to be a physician: to give hope to your neighbors, and make an impact on the rest of their lives. From then on, I knew this was what I wanted to do.”

She describes observing her mother in India as an education in and of itself. “It allowed me to examine the family unit in a unique way, watching their resilience as they navigated health concerns.” Dr. Kishnani began her formal medical education in India before embarking on an observation term at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “It was there I became fascinated with genetics, and by the time I moved to Duke University to do my third-year pediatric residency, I knew that would be the concentration for my career.”

Her research also led to a somewhat unconventional career path. “It is not often advised that you stay at the hospital where you trained, but for me, Durham is home,” she says. “I’ve been given every opportunity to progress at Duke, as well as opportunities to see and treat patients from all over the state, country and even internationally. Duke completely embraced me and my work.”

Dr. Kishnani married her husband, Sunil Kishnani, the same year she moved to Durham. “I like to say I started life here in more ways than one,” she says. “Sunil is a rock for me. He knows how much I care about my work and always encouraged me to pursue my passions.”

That support has been critical during her 30-year career as a pediatric medical genetics specialist. Dr. Kishnani sees many patients through their most difficult years. “Every patient is special and has taught me something,” she says. “One young man from South Africa told me about the gratitude he has for life. He knows without his treatments he wouldn’t be here, so why miss out on any moment to learn and enjoy?” she says. She’s amazed not only by the patients who live long lives, but also by those who’ve lost their battles, who are willing to do whatever it takes to help the next family. “Many know they will eventually succumb to their disease and want to do complete organ donation so they can help advance research,” she says. “It is so selfless that those living with these conditions still want to give.”

That’s what fuels Dr. Kishnani’s passion for her research. “We recently saw a sibling pair with an extreme case of Pompe, a glycogen storage disease,” she says. “We were able to initiate treatment right away with immune modulation, and today, the children look terrific. I didn’t think in my lifetime we would be able to accomplish developing an enzyme treatment for this rare genetic disease. Children are our future. Now we are able to give more of them the gift of an opportunity for a full life.” 

Her biggest inspirations are her own children: son Kunal and daughter Sujata. Both are carrying on the family tradition of helping others. Kunal works for a firm developing innovative treatments for cancer, and Sujata plans to attend medical school. “Their tenacity and commitment is breathtaking,” Dr. Kishnani says. “As a mom, you always wonder if you’ve given your children enough of your time or the right advice. I’ve learned so much from my patients that I think makes me a better mother, and my children in turn make me a better physician. Now it is their turn to give back to the world in their own ways.”

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Morgan Weston

Durham Magazine freelancer Morgan Weston is a North Carolina native who loves exploring the Triangle's diverse food, arts and craft beer offerings.

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