Remembering Thomas Brock, Xavier Becerra Confirmed as U.S. Health Secretary, and more

Thomas Brock, MD

Remembering Thomas Brock (1926 – 2021)

Thomas Brock, PhD, died on April 4, 2021 at the age of 94. Dr. Brock’s discovery of a species of bacteria, Thermus aquaticus, helped create the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), earning him a share of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

In addition to its recent use in coronavirus testing, PCR technology has been crucial for identifying DNA at crime scenes and diagnosing hematologic malignancies. “PCR is fundamental to everything we do in molecular biology today,” Yuka Manabe, MD, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told The New York Times.

Dr. Brock discovered Thermus aquaticus during a trip to Yellowstone National Park, where he observed algae living in a hot spring despite temperatures above the boiling point of water.

“It’s kind of an interesting story,” the microbiologist told Wyoming Public Radio in 2020, “how research that was being done for just basic research, trying to find out what kind of weird critters might be living in boiling water in Yellowstone, [would eventually have] extremely widespread practical applications.”

Dr. Brock is survived by his wife, Kathie; daughter, Emily; and son, Brian.

Source: The New York Times, April 22, 2021.


Xavier Becerra

U.S. Senate Confirms Xavier Becerra as Health Secretary

The U.S. Senate voted 50-49 to confirm Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). In this role, Mr. Becerra will support President Joe Biden’s health care agenda, including the nation’s coronavirus response, insurance for all Americans, deputizing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, and reducing racial disparities within the health care system.

“I understand the enormous challenges before us and our solemn responsibility to be faithful stewards of an agency that touches almost every aspect of our lives,” he said at his confirmation hearing. “I’m humbled by the task, and I’m ready for it.”

Since 2017, Mr. Becerra has served as the attorney general of California, and previously represented a Los Angeles-area district in the U.S. House of Representatives for 24 years. He is the first Latino to lead HHS.

Source: AP News, March 18, 2021.


Jeffrey J. Pu, MD, PhD

University of Arizona Cancer Center Appoints Jeffrey Pu as Medical Director of Cell Therapy and Transplant

Jeffrey J. Pu, MD, PhD, has been appointed medical director of the adult Hematopoietic Cell Therapy and Transplantation (HCTT) program at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson and associate director for the University of Arizona Cancer Center’s HCTT program. Dr. Pu is associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson.

The HCTT conducts research and provides care to patients who require blood or bone marrow transplants and cell therapies. As medical director for the adult HCTT program, Dr. Pu will work alongside director Emmanuel Katsanis, MD, to develop investigator-initiated clinical trials, secure extramural funding, and develop an independent research program in hematologic malignancies.

In addition to these new roles, Dr. Pu is chief of leukemia and bone marrow failure diseases and will lead the bone marrow transplant/leukemia clinical research team for the University of Arizona Cancer Center.

Source: University of Arizona Health Sciences press release, April 5, 2021.


Bertarelli Rare Cancers Fund Awards First Round of Grants to Harvard Medical School Researchers

The first round of grants from the $15 million Bertarelli Rare Cancers Fund, established at Harvard Medical School (HMS) by the Switzerland-based Bertarelli Foundation in 2019, has been awarded to support research and community building around rare cancers.

“This exciting new program will advance our capacity to prevent, treat, and cure rare cancers, which, combined, affect many tens of thousands of patients and their loved ones in this country each year,” said HMS Dean George Q. Daley, MD, PhD.

So far, more than $9 million in grants have been awarded to nine teams representing 19 lead and co-lead investigators across HMS and its affiliated hospitals. The grant recipients include:

  • Andrew Lane, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, aiming to uncover the essential proteins that drive uncontrolled cell division in blastic plasmacytoid dendritic cell neoplasm
  • Stephen Elledge, PhD, Gregor Mendel professor of genetics and medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, developing a collection of all abnormally fused genes playing a role in rare cancers
  • John Hanna, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, sequencing the DNA and RNA of clear cell tumor samples
  • Nabeel Bardeesy, PhD, associate professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, researching fibrolamellar carcinoma
  • Vamsi Mootha, MD, professor of systems biology in the Blavatnik Institute and professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, investigating Hürthle cell carcinoma
  • Christopher French, MD, associate professor of pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, focusing on molecular interactions that drive NUT carcinoma
  • Miguel Rivera, MD, associate professor of pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Kimberly Stegmaier, MD, professor of pediatrics at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, researching EWS fusion oncoproteins
  • John Iafrate, MD, PhD, Austin L. Vickery, Jr. professor of pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital, investigating clear cell odontogenic carcinoma

Source: Harvard Medical School press release, April 6, 2021.


Dan Theodorescu, MD, PhD
Peter Kuhn, PhD

DoD Grants $1.25M Award to Establish Virtual Cancer Center

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has granted the inaugural $1.25 million Virtual Cancer Center Director Award to Dan Theodorescu, MD, PhD, and Peter Kuhn, PhD, to establish the Convergent Science Institute in Cancer at the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

In addition, DoD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs’ Peer Reviewed Cancer Research Program will invest more than $12 million in the center.

At the virtual cancer center, experts will mentor emerging researchers from diverse scientific backgrounds and institutions. Each scholar will receive research funding and the center will cover planning, training, and administrative expenses.

“This grant is significant for several reasons – most importantly, its focus on young investigators,” Dr. Theodorescu, director of Cedars-Sinai Cancer Institute, said in a statement. “Junior researchers are often funded but fail because they lack connections to collaborators in and out of their fields. This grant will help maximize their success by broadening these connections in strategic and synergistic ways.”

Source: USC press release, May 7, 2021.