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University mourns loss of cancer pioneers

John H. Kersey, M.D.

John Kersey, M.D.

The Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota lost one of its most prominent and influential physician-scientists March 10 with the sudden death of John Kersey, M.D. He was 74.

A native Minnesotan and graduate of the Medical School (Class of 1964), Kersey dedicated his life to developing new treatments for childhood cancer. He founded the University’s blood and marrow transplant program and what is now called the Masonic Cancer Center, which became a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center under his watch in 1998.

Kersey also led the team that performed the world’s first successful bone marrow transplant for malignant lymphoma in 1975. That patient is alive and well today.

“John was the driving force that helped the University of Minnesota become internationally recognized for excellence in cancer treatment and research,” says Medical School Dean Aaron Friedman, M.D. “His enthusiasm for his work was contagious, and his passion for bringing people together to solve problems changed the way cancer research is conducted.”

Colleagues say that Kersey’s generosity as a friend and collaborator also set him apart.

“The world has been positively changed by John’s scientific, educational, and clinical contributions,” says Douglas Yee, M.D., who succeeded Kersey as director of the Masonic Cancer Center in 2007. “John provided mentorship and guidance to researchers around the world who will now carry on his legacy.”

Kersey is survived by his wife, Anne; 3 children; and 4 grandchildren.

To make a gift to the John H. Kersey Chair in Cancer Research in his memory, visit

John Ohlfest, Ph.D.

John R. Ohlfest, Ph.D.

John Ohlfest, Ph.D., a University of Minnesota alumnus and pioneering researcher who dedicated his career to developing novel therapies for brain cancer, died of malignant melanoma on Jan. 21. He was 35.

Ohlfest, who earned his Ph.D. at the University in 2004, joined the faculty in 2005 and led the Neurosurgery Gene Therapy Program. The inaugural holder of the Hedberg Family/Children’s Cancer Research Fund Endowed Chair in Brain Tumor Research, he explored multiple strategies for tackling brain tumors. His focus was on creating customized vaccines that would stimulate a patient’s own immune cells to destroy the tumor stem cells responsible for tumor growth.

“Dr. Ohlfest was one of the true leaders in cancer research,” says Aaron Friedman, M.D., dean of the Medical School. “Everyone he came in contact with walked away invigorated about the possibilities of science.”

In recent years, Ohlfest’s work on brain tumors in dogs gained national prominence and helped pave the way for clinical trials in people.

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

John Ohlfest is survived by his wife, Karen; 2 children; his parents; sister; and extended family. The Ohlfest Memorial Education Fund has been established in his honor through Wells Fargo for his children. To donate, visit any Wells Fargo branch and ask to make a contribution.

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