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Renowned brain tumor pioneer John Ohlfest, Ph.D., dies after his own battle with cancer

The University of Minnesota mourns the passing of cancer researcher John Ohlfest, Ph.D., who passed away on Monday, January 21, 2013, after a battle with malignant melanoma.

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.

“Dr. Ohlfest was one of the true leaders in cancer research,” said Aaron Friedman, M.D., dean of the Medical School and the University’s vice president of health sciences. “Everyone he came in contact with walked away invigorated about the possibilities of science.  His excitement about his work, his appreciation for those with whom he worked and his desire to make a difference are all traits that we will deeply miss.”

Dr. Ohlfest studied molecular biology at Iowa State University and received his B.S. in 2001. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in 2004 and joined the faculty of the department of neurosurgery in 2005 and then pediatrics in 2007.

In 2009, Ohlfest and College of Veterinary Medicine surgeon Elizabeth Pluhar, D.V.M., Ph.D., partnered to apply his combination of gene and immunotherapy to a dog named Batman.  After removing much of the tumor then administering the vaccine, Batman lived tumor free until passing away from an unrelated condition.

In 2010, Ohlfest partnered with University of Minnesota pediatric oncologist Christopher Moertel, M.D., on a first-in-human clinical trial testing his first vaccine in eight adults.  Although short lived, decreases in tumor size and an absence of side effects gave way to second and third generation studies yet to be completed.

“In the field of medicine, John was a star,” said his supervisor John Wagner, M.D., director of the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program and scientific director of the clinical research in the Stem Cell Institute.  “He had only one goal in mind—total cure.  What John could have accomplished over a long career we will never know—but even now, he continues to inspire us to continue our quest of finding cures for previously incurable diseases.”

For Ohlfest, creating effective therapies for people with brain tumors was an ultimate priority. In graduate school he dedicated himself to fighting brain cancer, realizing that a lack of drugs—and research—was costing people’s lives. One of those was his grandmother, who died from ovarian cancer that metastasized to her brain.

“Brain tumors come back with extreme fury,” Ohlfest said in 2011. “Our work is never enough—not until this is cured.”

In honor of John Ohlfest, an education fund – the Ohlfest Memorial Education Fund – has been established for his children.  The fund is through Wells Fargo.  To donate, visit any Wells Fargo branch and ask to make a contribution.

  1. January 26, 2013 3:41 pm | kenna Says:

    I went 2 highschool with john, we had a lot of classes together & we used 2 hang out outside of school. John was always a great guy & really didcare about everyone, my condolences go out 2 his entire family…he will surely be missed

  2. February 19, 2013 1:18 pm | Andrew Kidd Says:

    After returning to Canada following the completion of course work at UMN, I decided to recommit my goals to assisting those with cancer, after losing too many friends and family members to it, and worse yet, watching others lose their children to it. I currently coordinate funding for research into hematopoetic cancers at two major universities in Canada. People like John are my heroes, both for the lives they live by example, and knowing that the fruits of his hard work will ensure that others will not have to go through what he and his family did in the future.

  3. February 19, 2013 10:18 pm | Garry Yazell Says:

    I remember when John started his animal research at the University of Minnesota, I was the animal supervisor where his animals were housed. He was a very nice person and was a great researcher, I was sadden to hear about his death. His lab staff are very bright and cared about what they were doing. My condolences go out to his wife and kids. May he never be forgotten.

  4. February 20, 2013 8:30 pm | Lucina Mendez Says:

    This is very sad. His family is in my thoughts, what a loss for the world.

  5. June 10, 2013 12:18 am | Jay Drybread Says:

    Any brain tumor is inherently serious and life-threatening because of its invasive and infiltrative character in the limited space of the intracranial cavity. However, brain tumors (even malignant ones) are not invariably fatal, especially lipomas which are inherently benign. Brain tumors or intracranial neoplasms can be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign).

  6. February 21, 2014 11:25 pm | Kingsthrone Says:

    I met John Ohlfest facing him as an opponent in the FPS Unreal Tournament back in 2005. His alias was back then “Sleeping_Beauty”. I asked about the alias and he told me, “No I am not a girl”. “Sleeping_Beauty is the name of a possible treatment for brain tumours.” I suddenly stopped playing and told him about my mother, who had gotten a brain tumour – the hardest kind – 6 months ago. It turned out John was researching a cure for precisely that kind of tumour and suddenly I got some hope – maybe my mom could be cured. But soon I realized that the work was in early progress and that it wasn’t likely to cure any human in atleast 5 years. My mother didn’t have 5 years. He died 7 months later in her bed, with my dad, my two older sisters and me gathered around her. It was my mothers body that gave up. She lived with the tumour little over a year when the doctors gave her three months. She was a fighter.

    Since then I had some e-mail contact with John where I told him what happened to my mother. He always answered me, and I still kept my hope that this disease would be cured some day. Now, just now, I happened to Google John Ohlfest to see his progress and I read that he passed away a year ago, in another type of cancer. I really feel with his family and I hope his work will be finished some day. The day you will be able to cure brain cancer. Now, of course, I feel the same hope for being able to cure every type of cancer there is. I hate the disease but it is there and it has to be dealt with. I want to give all the researchers my support and I really appreciate their work and their effort to reach this common goal – cure.

    Stay strong, be loving to people!

  7. March 2, 2015 2:45 am | Charles Baker Says:

    This man did amazing things for my family, giving my dog, Batman, 2 extra years of life. When I found out he had a fatal brain tumor, as a nine-year-old child, I was devastated. But he was able to help.

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