Campus & Community

Korsmeyer, cancer biologist, 54

4 min read

Stanley J. Korsmeyer, a scientific leader at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute whose landmark discoveries about why cancer cells survive opened a promising new avenue for cancer treatment, died March 31. A nonsmoker, he died of lung cancer at 54.

Throughout a stellar career, Korsmeyer was much-honored and regarded affectionately by colleagues and junior scientists throughout the cancer research community. He was a powerful and focused scientific visionary with an iron core of determination, tempered by a sunny, upbeat disposition. As a mentor, he guided the early careers of many postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and technicians.

“Stan Korsmeyer was one of the world’s great scientists and one of its greatest people,” said Edward J. Benz Jr., Dana-Farber’s president. “He was admired and loved for who he was even more than for what he accomplished. Even in the face of his illness, he was determined to take care of and support his family and those who depended on him in his lab. We will all miss him profoundly.”

Harvard Medical School Dean Joseph B. Martin said, “Stan Korsmeyer’s scientific prowess placed him among the top cancer researchers in the country, while his commitment to the broader mission of the School made him a pillar of the Harvard medical community. He was a loyal friend and a valued colleague; his loss will be deeply felt.”

Korsmeyer burst on the scientific scene in the late 1980s, demonstrating that a particular form of blood cancer arose because a genetic flaw allowed the cells to survive the body’s normal process for getting rid of them – “programmed” cell death, or apoptosis. The abnormal gene that blocked apoptosis, Bcl-2, thus became the first of a new class of cancer-causing “oncogenes,” and Korsmeyer was credited with spearheading the study of apoptosis in cancer causation.

For his trailblazing research, Korsmeyer was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has received many noteworthy honors, including the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research, the General Motors Mott Award, the first annual Wiley Foundation Prize in Biomedical Science, the Pezcoller Foundation-AACR International Award, and the Harvard Mentoring Award.

For 19 years, Korsmeyer was a well-known investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the largest private funder of biomedical research and science education in the nation. HHMI supports about 300 highly selected scientists at their home institutions.

Korsmeyer joined Dana-Farber in 1998, recruited from Washington University in St. Louis where he was director of the Division of Molecular Oncology and professor of medicine. At Dana-Farber, Korsmeyer headed the Program in Molecular Oncology within the Department of Cancer Immunology and AIDS. He was the Sidney Farber Professor of Pathology and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

As chair of the Executive Committee on Research, Korsmeyer was a scientific visionary and driving force, helping to shape the Institute’s new strategic plan for attacking cancer that emphasizes collaboration among researchers within and outside of Dana-Farber, while employing the most advanced tools for discovering new cancer drug candidates. At the time of Korsmeyer’s death, he and his Dana-Farber colleagues had begun applying what they had learned over the years, using experimental methods to or manipulating apoptosis molecules to force cancer cells to self-destruct. They have been pressing the search for drugs that could counteract the abnormal survival signals from Bcl-2 that make cancer so hard to treat.

Korsmeyer was born in 1950 in Beardstown, Ill., the son of a livestock farmer. With these roots, he became the youngest person ever (at age 14) to show the Grand Champion pair of Hampshire hogs at the Illinois State Fair, receiving the Governor’s Trophy as his first piece of “hardware.” These same roots led to an interest in veterinary medicine, but, following the advice of a mentoring veterinarian, he switched to pre-med.

Korsmeyer received his M.D. from the University of Illinois, Chicago. He completed an internship and residency at the University of California Hospitals in San Francisco and served a research fellowship at the National Cancer Institute from 1979 to 1982. There, he spent time in the laboratory of noted cancer researchers Philip Leder and Tom Waldman, learning the then-new techniques of recombinant DNA to pursue his interest in blood cancers. Korsmeyer was a devoted and loving father to his sons. No medical accolade surpassed his pride as a father. Susan, his wife of 25 years, provided constant and steadfast commitment to their sons and to Korsmeyer’s academic career.

Korsmeyer is survived by his his wife, Susan J. (Reynard) Korsmeyer; sons Jason Louis and Evan John Korsmeyer; parents Willard and Carnell Korsmeyer; sisters Lynn Hollahan, Janet Korsmeyer, and Karen Randolla.