Dr. Steve Collins, RIP

My dad told me in his late seventies that, aside from health issues, the worst part of getting old was watching your friends die, as your generation passes.  I turned seventy recently, and already I feel the burden with the loss of our friend and colleague, Larrey Anderson.  Last night, in Seattle, I joined with family and friends in celebrating a memorial service for a friend of more than half a century, Dr. Steve Collins.  

Steve and I became friends with each other as freshmen at Kenyon College in 1965, when we started hanging out together with Richard Baehr and a few others.  We prized brains and a quick sense of humor, and Steve had both in abundance.  He had a hearty laugh, too.  An unpretentious, super-smart, fun guy to be with.  Everyone liked Steve.

He and his wife Kathy created a wonderful family, with three fine sons, all of them sterling people, of high character and accomplishment.

Steve and I never talked about his scientific work, even in college, where he was a biology major and so advanced at it that I probably couldn't have kept up.  After he went to Columbia med school and embarked on a medical research career, I gave up on understanding what he was pursuing.  I knew he had become a cancer researcher of the first rank and head of a division of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, but that was it.

However, an article discussing his work was published by the Hutch, as it is known, and in reading, I realized that Steve had done something extraordinary.  He had advanced human knowledge in a meaningful way.  He had created a new path toward fighting cancer, one that had never occurred to people before.  He, to quote the article, "changed the way scientists thought about cancer cells."

We all leave a legacy with the families we create and carry on to the next generations, if we are able to reproduce.  Steve and Kathy have a wonderful legacy.  But few among us leave a legacy of actually advancing the human stock of useful knowledge in science.  Here are the key paragraphs that even I could understand from the tribute published by the Hutch, describing some of Steve's achievements.  (The entire article may be read here.)

Mary Engel of the Fred Hutch News Service writes:

Dr. Steven J. Collins, whose research into the molecular genetics of myeloid leukemias changed the way scientists thought about cancer cells and led to the development of one of the earliest targeted therapies, died May 25. He was 69 and had been living with gastrinoma, a malignant pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, for nine years.

An emeritus member of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center's Human Biology Division, he held the Madeline Dabney Adams Endowed Chair in AML Research, only the second chair to be endowed at Fred Hutch, from 2003 until his retirement in 2012. His research laid the groundwork for the development of retinoic acid therapies for acute promyelocytic leukemia, or APL, a subtype of acute myeloid leukemi

In both types of leukemia, immature cells in the bone marrow lose their ability to mature, or differentiate, into infection-fighting white blood cells. Collins showed that retinoic acid, a vitamin A derivative, can trigger a series of molecular actions that drives immature APL cells to develop into healthy ones. Until then, researchers had focused on toxic agents that would kill the immature cells.

"The idea that you could cause a leukemia cell to differentiate and use drugs that were nontoxic to treat it — no one had thought of that," said Dr. Fred Appelbaum, Fred Hutch executive vice president and deputy director. "Everyone thought about killing the cell, not inducing the cell to grow up. It was a change in how to think about cancer cells. Suddenly it opened up a whole area of research."

During the speeches at the memorial service, one of the doctors from the Hutch mentioned that the survival rate of one particularly nasty form of leukemia had been almost zero, but owing to the research path opened by Steve, the survival rate is now 90%.

Thank you, Steve.  I never knew of your gift to us all until your passing.  I have known a few other people who passed on, and only afterward did I learn of all they had done, or of all their good deeds or challenges, as they were memorialized.  It is a human ritual that serves us well.

My dad told me in his late seventies that, aside from health issues, the worst part of getting old was watching your friends die, as your generation passes.  I turned seventy recently, and already I feel the burden with the loss of our friend and colleague, Larrey Anderson.  Last night, in Seattle, I joined with family and friends in celebrating a memorial service for a friend of more than half a century, Dr. Steve Collins.  

Steve and I became friends with each other as freshmen at Kenyon College in 1965, when we started hanging out together with Richard Baehr and a few others.  We prized brains and a quick sense of humor, and Steve had both in abundance.  He had a hearty laugh, too.  An unpretentious, super-smart, fun guy to be with.  Everyone liked Steve.

He and his wife Kathy created a wonderful family, with three fine sons, all of them sterling people, of high character and accomplishment.

Steve and I never talked about his scientific work, even in college, where he was a biology major and so advanced at it that I probably couldn't have kept up.  After he went to Columbia med school and embarked on a medical research career, I gave up on understanding what he was pursuing.  I knew he had become a cancer researcher of the first rank and head of a division of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, but that was it.

However, an article discussing his work was published by the Hutch, as it is known, and in reading, I realized that Steve had done something extraordinary.  He had advanced human knowledge in a meaningful way.  He had created a new path toward fighting cancer, one that had never occurred to people before.  He, to quote the article, "changed the way scientists thought about cancer cells."

We all leave a legacy with the families we create and carry on to the next generations, if we are able to reproduce.  Steve and Kathy have a wonderful legacy.  But few among us leave a legacy of actually advancing the human stock of useful knowledge in science.  Here are the key paragraphs that even I could understand from the tribute published by the Hutch, describing some of Steve's achievements.  (The entire article may be read here.)

Mary Engel of the Fred Hutch News Service writes:

Dr. Steven J. Collins, whose research into the molecular genetics of myeloid leukemias changed the way scientists thought about cancer cells and led to the development of one of the earliest targeted therapies, died May 25. He was 69 and had been living with gastrinoma, a malignant pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, for nine years.

An emeritus member of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center's Human Biology Division, he held the Madeline Dabney Adams Endowed Chair in AML Research, only the second chair to be endowed at Fred Hutch, from 2003 until his retirement in 2012. His research laid the groundwork for the development of retinoic acid therapies for acute promyelocytic leukemia, or APL, a subtype of acute myeloid leukemi

In both types of leukemia, immature cells in the bone marrow lose their ability to mature, or differentiate, into infection-fighting white blood cells. Collins showed that retinoic acid, a vitamin A derivative, can trigger a series of molecular actions that drives immature APL cells to develop into healthy ones. Until then, researchers had focused on toxic agents that would kill the immature cells.

"The idea that you could cause a leukemia cell to differentiate and use drugs that were nontoxic to treat it — no one had thought of that," said Dr. Fred Appelbaum, Fred Hutch executive vice president and deputy director. "Everyone thought about killing the cell, not inducing the cell to grow up. It was a change in how to think about cancer cells. Suddenly it opened up a whole area of research."

During the speeches at the memorial service, one of the doctors from the Hutch mentioned that the survival rate of one particularly nasty form of leukemia had been almost zero, but owing to the research path opened by Steve, the survival rate is now 90%.

Thank you, Steve.  I never knew of your gift to us all until your passing.  I have known a few other people who passed on, and only afterward did I learn of all they had done, or of all their good deeds or challenges, as they were memorialized.  It is a human ritual that serves us well.

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