It’s a sad time for the University of Minnesota community this week. John Ohlfest, Ph.D., a researcher with the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, and first recipient of the Hedberg Family/Children’s Cancer Research Fund Endowed Chair in Brain Tumor Research, passed away on Monday, January 21, 2013, after a battle with malignant melanoma. He was 35 years old. He is survived by his wife, Karen, and their two children.
Ohlfest, the director of the Neurosurgery Gene Therapy Program, and associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics, was a recognized pioneer in the treatment of brain tumors using both gene therapy and novel immunotherapies in an attempt to boost a patient’s own immune system to attack the cancer.
In recent years, his work on brain tumors in dogs also gained national prominence. Ohlfest relied on dogs as a model to test the safety and effectiveness of new treatments prior to their implementation in humans. This model not only served to be more relevant than testing in mice but also gave many family pets a chance for cure. Most importantly, this work gave real hope to patients with brain tumors refractory to conventional therapies.
Ohlfest explored multiple strategies to tackle brain tumors. While his work focused on the development of customized vaccines that would stimulate a patient’s own immune cells to destroy the tumor stem cells (the ‘parent’ cells responsible for tumor growth), he also looked at ways to alter the environment of the brain tumor cells, making it less resistant to therapy. He also was instrumental in the development of new devices to better deliver chemotherapy to the tumor itself.
Since his original research, Ohlfest had also started working toward a “vaccine” for three other types of recurrent brain tumors: glioblastoma, medulloblastoma and ependymoma.