The Changemaker: A Profile of Dr. Marla Keller

The ubiquitous question, “What do you do?” when meeting people at social gatherings should be rephrased, “What don’t you do?” when referring to Marla Keller, M.D., professor and vice chair in the department of medicine (infectious diseases) and in the department of obstetrics & gynecology and women's health, and director of the Harold and Muriel Block Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at Einstein and Montefiore (ICTR).

She is a clinician, researcher, teacher, mentor, leader, and overall cheerleader. She exudes genuine excitement and pride about the accomplishments of her mentees, including Dr. Kerry Murphy and Dr. Caroline Mullis, who are investigating the vaginal microbiome of menopausal women living with HIV and improving delivery of HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for post-partum women, respectively.

Among Dr. Keller’s recent achievements are, along with Mimi Kim, Sc.D., securing a seven-year, $30 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue support for the ICTR, which she has led since 2021. This critical funding will further ICTR’s efforts to improve health in the Bronx, Westchester, and lower Hudson Valley by accelerating the translation of scientific discoveries into effective and equitable prevention and treatment approaches.

Based on her clinical experience and expertise in patient management, translational, and clinical science, Dr. Keller was asked to serve as a member of the NIH COVID Treatment Guidelines Panel established by Dr. Anthony Fauci. The panel is comprised of clinicians from approximately 42 academic institutions around the country who volunteered their time for over three years to write and update the rapidly changing COVID Treatment Guidelines. The Guidelines have been updated 65 times and have had more than 47 million page views.

Members of the NIH COVID Treatment Guidelines Panel
Members of the NIH COVID Treatment Guidelines Panel

Earlier this week, Dr. Keller was honored by the Montefiore Einstein’s Women’s Division (“Women Funding Science”) as a Changemaker at its 68th Spirit of Achievement Luncheon held at the Rainbow Room.  

She has been at Montefiore Einstein for 16 years so there are many more achievements to list. We will let this video do the “talking.”

Career Trajectory

Dr. Keller never planned to become a doctor and there was no one in her family or extended family who was in the medical field.

Her passion for medicine emerged slowly. In fact, Dr. Keller didn’t make the decision until well into college at Cornell where she was majoring in psychology. She dipped her toe into the medical arena her junior year by learning a little bit about laboratory research and patient care and went on to medical school at NYU, which is where her love of infectious diseases began.

“Bellevue (the primary teaching hospital of NYU’s School of Medicine) was a phenomenal place to see patients with infections – particularly tuberculosis and HIV,” says Dr. Keller. “This influenced my decision to become an infectious disease specialist and took me to Boston for residency training at Beth Israel Hospital (now Beth Israel Deaconess) followed by a fellowship in infectious diseases at Beth Israel and Brigham and Women’s Hospitals.”

Spirit of Achievement Honorees: Award-winning singer-songwriter Judy Collins and Dr. Marla Keller
Spirit of Achievement Honorees: Award-winning singer-songwriter Judy Collins and Dr. Marla Keller

“After my fellowship, I decided that I wanted to practice HIV/AIDS care in New York. I wanted to be where such care was desperately needed.” This took Dr. Keller to the Jack Martin Fund Clinic at Mount Sinai where she became a full-time HIV clinician. She recounts that while it was extremely gratifying, she was also drawn to research and was fortunate to train with some amazing mentors at Mount Sinai, including Dr. Betsy Herold (now also at Einstein). “At Sinai, I learned how to write grants and conduct clinical studies, and, when the grant funding started coming in, I slowly shifted the majority of my time from patient care to research.”

Dr. Keller and Dr. Herold, along with eight people from their research teams at Mount Sinai, went en masse to Einstein’s NIH-funded Center for AIDS Research in 2007. “It transformed my career,” says Dr. Keller.”

She has conducted early-phase clinical trials focused on HIV and herpes prevention, testing vaginal products to determine their safety and efficacy.

When COVID appeared, she pivoted some of her research activities. In collaboration with her Montefiore Einstein colleagues, she helped develop Montefiore’s treatment protocols, which were happening in real time while caring for patients, a period of great stress for the medical teams.

Their work showed that in hospitalized patients with COVID-19 and high levels of inflammation, the use of steroids was associated with a 75% reduction in the risk of going on mechanical ventilation or dying.

With Dr. Liise-anne Pirofski, chair of the division of infectious diseases, Dr. Keller helped secure funding from the NIH to conduct a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial at 21 US hospitals to determine the safety and efficacy of convalescent plasma.

“I am in awe of Dr. Pirofski’s dedication. Without any funding, she persevered to do a large clinical trial,” says Dr. Keller. “While developing the trial protocol, Dr. Pirofski aggressively pursued financing from foundations and the NIH, which resulted in more than $4 million to support the trial and important laboratory studies.”

In addition, Dr. Keller, along with Dr. Elizabeth Kitsis, professor and vice chair in the department of medicine (rheumatology), created and lead the department’s Faculty Mentoring Program. More than 100 department of medicine faculty have participated in the mentoring program since its inception and the program has made a huge impact on their careers.

“Dr. Keller is an exceptional physician, scientist, mentor, and leader,” says Dr. Yaron Tomer, chair of the department of medicine. “What is so impressive about her is that she not only performs groundbreaking translational research herself, but also leads all translational research at Einstein. As the director of the ICTR she oversees support provided to approximately 1,000 projects every year performed by hundreds of investigators. Dr. Keller’s energy and enthusiasm are inspiring, and I am fortunate to work with her.”

To wrap up, Dr. Keller offers this: “What I find unique about Einstein and Montefiore is the ability to work in an incredibly collaborative environment where there is cutting-edge research led by world-class investigators, outstanding clinicians, and phenomenal patients. I had not seen that anywhere in my career.”