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Dana-Farber researcher whose wife died of cancer receives prestigious honor

Dr. William Kaelin said he doesn’t need any reminder of the importance of his research. Every day, to reach his office at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, he has to walk past patients in treatment.

But Kaelin has a particularly personal reason for being in a hurry to help cancer patients: The disease killed his wife last year.

Dr. Carolyn Kaelin was a well-known Dana-Farber breast cancer surgeon in 2003 when she came down with the disease. She was successfully treated, but in 2010, cancer struck her again, this time, an unrelated glioblastoma brain tumor.

Despite his rush, Kaelin thinks that to make the best treatments it’s crucial to understand the basic mechanisms of how cancer works — an agonizingly slow process of laboratory work.

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Today, he’s being recognized with the 2016 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for his work on the pathway by which cells sense and adapt to changes in oxygen levels. He shares the $250,000 award, which is often called the American Nobel, with two peers, Dr. Peter J. Ratcliffe, of the University of Oxford/Francis Crick Institute, and Dr. Gregg L. Semenza, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“Bill Kaelin is an extraordinary researcher and highly deserving of this honor,” Dr. Edward J. Benz Jr., CEO of Dana-Farber, said in a prepared statement. “His work at Dana-Farber has guided and inspired cancer researchers and caregivers all over the world in understanding the mysteries of cancer.”

The cells of all animals both need oxygen and can be damaged by it. To maintain the Goldilocks “just right amount” requires a complex system of checks and balances.

As a young researcher just starting his own lab at Dana-Farber in the early 1990s, Kaelin decided to focus on a rare, inherited condition called von Hippel-Lindau disease, which can lead to kidney cancer and benign brain tumors, among other growths.

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His research and that of others has shown that von Hippel-Lindau is caused by a mutation in the VHL gene, which disrupts this system of oxygen sensing and control.

In 1996, Kaelin led a team which showed that cells lacking VHL activated genes that normally should only be turned on during times of low oxygen.

“They were acting as though they were starved of oxygen, even when they weren’t,” he said, sometimes leading to cancer.

In 2001, Kaelin and Ratcliffe’s group independently showed that a chemical flag appears when there’s adequate oxygen.

The work on oxygen sensing has led to the development of potential drugs for heart attack, stroke, and kidney cancer, as well as possible treatments for anemia and retinopathy of prematurity, a condition that can blind premature infants.

“We’d obviously like to go faster, but at least now we have a foot in the door,” Kaelin said.

Studying cancer, Kaelin said, is a great way to gain insights into the activity of all cells. So, he’s not surprised research that began on one rare cancer might have implications for so many other conditions.

Kaelin said he shares the public’s frustration with the pace of progress against cancer but said advances won’t come without basic scientific understanding of cancer’s complexities.

Kaelin, 58, is clearly still mourning his wife’s death. “Obviously, the experience with Carolyn was unbearably painful,” he said.

He biked the Pan-Mass Challenge this year in her memory — a race she competed in for many years.

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“It was very moving and I was happy to see I could still do it,” Kaelin said.

Their daughter just finished at Yale, where their son is a junior. Both grew up quickly with their mother’s initial diagnosis, Kaelin said. “My kids are much more mature and have much more emotional depth than I did when I was their age,” he said. Neither is planning a career in medicine.

Forty-one Lasker winners over the last three decades have gone on to win Nobels.

For Kaelin, one of the best parts about winning prizes used to be celebrating them with his wife. Now, though he still is grateful for the recognition, he says he’s even more appreciative of discovering things that no one has found before, particularly if those discoveries can be of use to others.

“If you do your science well and ask good questions,” he said, “the prizes will take care of themselves.”


Karen Weintraub can be reached at weintraubkaren@gmail.com.