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Vol. LVII, No. 22
November 4, 2005
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Diabetes Branch Chief LeRoith Retires

A spirited love of science, an inquisitive collegiality and just the right amount of serendipity have made Dr. Derek LeRoith an international expert in insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). After a 26-year career with NIDDK, he moved in September to Mt. Sinai School of Medicine to open a lab and a new diabetes patient care center.

He has long had a dual interest in both research and clinical care. After an initial stint in NIDDK labs (then known as the National Institute of Arthritis, Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases) as a visiting scientist, LeRoith left NIH in 1983 to teach at the University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine and to direct the university's diabetes outpatient clinics in Ohio.

 
Dr. Derek LeRoith (l) poses with his research team, including (standing, from l) Dr. Patricia Pennisi, Dr. Stefania Santopietro, Hui Sun, Dr. Shoshana Yakar, Christine Biser and Dr. Kenjiro Inagaki. Kneeling are Bethel Stannard (l) and Jennifer Setser-Portas.  

I was anxious to get him back. He was so good," remembers Dr. Jesse Roth, the NIDDK scientific director who convinced LeRoith to return as a senior investigator in 1984. Other senior scientists in the branch were studying insulin, and LeRoith directed his talents to the complementary study of the IGF system at what turned out to be a propitious time: the new science of molecular biology was just beginning to influence endocrinology. LeRoith had an affinity for the new technology, and his study of the peptide's cell biology began to widen understanding of the role of IGF-1 in normal growth and development.

Within 2 years, he was chief of the branch's molecular and cellular physiology section, and was investigating his suspicion that IGF-1 played a role in tumor formation.

"His tumor work was just terrific," says Roth, who calls LeRoith a leader in developing understanding of IGF-1's role in cancer. Dr. Lothar Hennighausen, chief of NIDDK's Laboratory of Genetics and Physiology, and a mammary gland expert, agrees. "Derek was the first to demonstrate a clear link between IGF-1 and cancer." The two researchers got acquainted and started an NIDDK collaboration when LeRoith was on sabbatical in Israel and Hennighausen was on sabbatical in Germany. Studying the physiology of IGF-1 in transgenic mice, LeRoith found that IGF-1 controlled normal mammary development, linking the peptide to breast cancer.

Through the late nineties, the cell biology of IGF-1 and its influence on various cancers was LeRoith's major focus. Some of his papers detailing the expression and mechanisms of IGF-1 are classics that have been cited hundreds of times. Today, IGF-1 studies are "prime-time," LeRoith says, with multiple pharmaceutical companies looking for antibodies to block IGF-1 receptors in patients with cancer. Widespread in the body, IGF-1 also plays a role in aging, the immune system and diabetes, where LeRoith has focused more of his work in recent years.

Ardent about science, and with an easygoing, down-to-earth style that draws collaborators to his scientific inquiries, LeRoith says the advent of molecular biology and the development of transgenic mice as a major research tool were the sources of his most exciting research experiences.

"Being able to play with genes in the lab, to successfully clone them, was exhilarating," he explains. Working with knock-out mice when the technology was cutting edge, and not widely used in endocrinology, was another high. "I love it when interesting results alter the theories that have always been accepted. NIH allowed me to do this risky kind of work."

"NIH is the perfect place for that," agrees Dr. Charles Roberts, professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health Sciences University, a longtime friend and former colleague who came to NIH to collaborate with LeRoith as a special expert in molecular biology. "Derek took full advantage of the NIH environment: he pulled together talented people and used the resources of the intramural program to produce an important body of work." To date, LeRoith's bibliography boasts 509 papers, many of which have shaped the field, according to Hennighausen.

But all that work did not make Derek a dull boy. Colleagues describe him as a very genuine, open person who is also a lover of life, full of personality and good humor. "You knew if you got him going on a certain topic, you'd get some funny stories," says Betty Diggs, executive director of the American Diabetes Association's Washington, D.C., chapter. Roberts calls him "a wild and crazy guy," a description best illustrated by LeRoith's appearance at an Endocrine Society meeting held in Las Vegas. To howls of laughter from his IGF colleagues, LeRoith took the podium for his keynote speech outfitted in an Elvis costume, complete with spangles and full wig. "He's a good wise guy," says Roth.

 
  Keynote speaker LeRoith makes a surprise appearance at an Endocrine Society dinner in Las Vegas.

A native of South Africa, LeRoith is just as well known for wearing "desert garb, Israeli-style." Friends swear he sports his trademark shorts and sandals 10 months of the year. "My suspicion is that he only owns one pair of long pants," jokes Roberts.

However many serious discussions of challenging scientific questions he's been part of over the years, however many genes and knock-out mice he's studied, LeRoith has never lost sight of other important perspectives: shepherding young scientists into successful research careers and bringing the benefits of the bench to the bedside. "He really did have a good grasp of the science-medicine connections," says Roberts. "He always asked 'What's the clinical connection?'"

He has combined his love of mentoring and his concern for improving clinical practice with considerable administrative skills, say colleagues, to foster scientific communication and to translate state-of-the-art science to practitioners. Since 1990, he has administered the Mid-Atlantic Diabetes Research Symposium, a popular program that brings young scientists together annually to share their work in poster sessions.

During the same period, he has also put together a "Diabetes Update" for clinicians every other year. "He wanted to provide the most current information from the best minds available at the time," says Diggs of ADA, a co-sponsor of the biannual event. A "superb speaker" who was much in demand, LeRoith was able to translate complex scientific findings into knowledge that clinicians could use in practice. "They walked away understanding what he was talking about — it's a rare gift," she adds.

Appointed chief of the Diabetes Branch in 1999, LeRoith initiated an intramural diabetes interest group that drew researchers from ICs outside NIDDK to encourage more inter-institute collaborations. He also founded a group called Cadre to promote diabetes education in primary care, and since 2000, has worked on conferences for the Endocrine Fellows Foundation. He has personally nurtured more than 80 fellows over his NIH career.

Now he has taken his enthusiasms to Mt. Sinai, where he will run the division of endocrine metabolism, which will emphasize basic research in diabetes. He will also establish a center for diabetes intensive care in an effort to improve diabetes care long-term.

"It's a good time to go," LeRoith says, although it's sad to say goodbye to the friends and colleagues he's had for 26 years. "I will also miss coming to work in shorts and sandals every day," he adds. "Now he'll have to buy two suits and two ties," notes Roth.

LeRoith got his M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Cape Town . He has given visiting professor lectures at numerous institutions, including the USSR Academy of Sciences and Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel.

Two NIH'ers Honored by ASTRO

 

The American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology (ASTRO) honored two National Cancer Institute employees at its 47th annual meeting last month. Dr. C. Norman Coleman (l), associate director of NCI's Radiation Research Program in the Division of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis, and director of the Radiation Oncology Sciences Program, was awarded the Gold Medal. Dr. Francis J. Mahoney, chief of NCI's Radiotherapy Development Branch, received ASTRO's Honorary Member Award. The Gold Medal, ASTRO's highest honor, is bestowed on "members who have made outstanding contributions to the field of radiation oncology, including research, clinical care, teaching and service," according to the society's web site. An honorary membership is the highest ASTRO award given to "distinguished cancer researchers and leaders in disciplines other than radiation oncology, radiation physics or radiobiology." Founded in 1958, the society's mission is to advance the practice of radiation oncology. ASTRO has more than 7,500 members, making it the largest organization of its kind.

Dionne Joins NINR as New Scientific Director

The National Institute of Nursing Research has appointed Dr. Raymond Dionne as new scientific director of its Division of Intramural Research. He comes to NINR from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

 

Dionne is nationally recognized for his research on pain management, specifically variability in patients who experience pain and the mechanisms underlying how medication administered pre- and post-operatively reduces pain. His research program, together with his experience in managing clinical studies and mentoring young investigators, will be instrumental in advancing NINR's intramural program.

NINR director Dr. Patricia Grady said, "Dr. Dionne's experience as chief of NIDCR's Pain and Neurosensory Mechanisms Branch will make him a valuable addition to our team. We look forward to him providing leadership to NINR's ongoing efforts to build a cutting-edge intramural program that contributes to nursing science through the investigation of bio-behavioral mechanisms associated with the symptoms of acute and chronic illness."

NIAAA's Kunos Wins Award

Dr. George Kunos, scientific director for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, received the 2005 Mechoulam Award from the International Cannabinoid Research Society. The award recognizes outstanding contributions to research on cannabinoids, chemicals — like those derived from marijuana — that stimulate the brain's reward system by binding to cannabinoid-1 (CB-1) receptors.

Kunos is a leader in the field investigating endocannabinoids — endogenous, or naturally occurring, lipid-like compounds produced by the brain and other tissues. His work with knockout mice demonstrated that endocannabinoids acting on CB-1 receptors mediate the rewarding and pleasurable properties of alcohol, contributing to alcohol dependency and abuse. Endocannabinoids also have an important role in obesity, regulating both appetite and peripheral fat metabolism. Such findings are now being translated into clinical research. An ongoing clinical study at NIAAA's Intramural Research Program is examining whether a novel medication that blocks CB-1 receptors could potentially help heavy drinkers overcome the craving for alcohol.

The award was presented to Kunos during the society's recent annual symposium in Clearwater, Fla. The award is named after Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli medicinal chemist renowned for discovering endocannabinoids and, earlier, for identifying delta- 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as the psychoactive principle of marijuana.

NINR Director Grady Honored

 

The Medical University of South Carolina honored Dr. Patricia A. Grady (l), director of the National Institute of Nursing Research, with the degree of doctor of science, honoris causa, at recent ceremonies in Charleston. Dr. Raymond Greenberg, president of MUSC, conferred the honorary doctorate on Grady. Dr. Gail W. Stuart, dean and professor of nursing at the MUSC College of Nursing, cited Grady's extraordinary contributions to our nation's health. "She has helped bring critical research from the laboratory to the bedside and into our communities," she said. "Dr. Grady has established herself as a role model for faculty in the College of Nursing and as a source of inspiration for professionals of all disciplines."


CIT's Madeline Lee Mourned

Madeline Lee, an information technology specialist in CIT's Enterprise Business Intelligence Branch, died June 21 of ovarian cancer, just short of her 52nd birthday. Her entire 33-year federal career was at NIH.

A native Washingtonian, Lee graduated from Robert E. Peary High School in 1971 and subsequently obtained an entry-level position at NIH. From 1972 to 1979, she worked as a secretary at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

She won a position in the NIH Stride program and enrolled at American University. From 1979 to 1982, she worked as a computer assistant at the Clinical Center. In 1982, she received her B.S. degree from AU in technology of management and graduated magna cum laude.

For the past 23 years, Lee worked in the information technology field as a computer programmer, rising to the position of IT specialist and expert for the Data Warehouse (DW) and nVision Travel Business Area.

Lee was an exceptional employee. Over the course of her tour at CIT, she received numerous awards and citations for her in-depth knowledge of her field, finesse, analytical ability and attention to detail when creating DW and nVision travel reports for Congress and other organizations.

Lee's many friends and colleagues remember her as a quiet, caring and loving spirit. "Madeline was a devoted staff member who provided both operational and technical support in the development and maintenance of the comprehensive decision support system for the NIH," said John Price, chief of her branch. "She consistently demonstrated accuracy and thoroughness, and earned the respect and admiration of team members for her mastery of knowledge on the NIH travel business processes and data management. She will be sorely missed, on many levels."

Lee is survived by her husband Donald, her son, Brandon, her father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. Art Ping Lee, five siblings, in-laws and many nieces and nephews.

Contributions in her memory may be sent to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, 6301 Ivy Lane, Suite 108, Greenbelt, MD 20770.

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