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A legacy of leadership

John Kersey, M.D.

Still committed to improving patient care, John Kersey, M.D., returns to research full-time after 15 years as Cancer Center director

For many years, John Kersey, M.D., has been the face of the University of Minnesota Cancer Center. Both as a groundbreaking researcher and as the center’s founding director, he played a key role in bringing together researchers and clinicians from across the University to transform cancer research and patient care.

So when Kersey stepped down as director in March, his colleagues thought they knew why.

And they were right. Kersey traded his directorship and seventh-floor corner office in the Masonic Cancer Research Building for a smaller office a couple of floors down so he could devote more time to his longtime love: research.

John Kersey, M.D., performed the first blood and marrow transplant for treating lymphoma in 1975.

“John has always been very devoted to his research, and obviously he still is,” says pediatrics professor emeritus Norma Ramsay, M.D., who first worked with Kersey in the 1970s. “This move is a logical extension of his career that will benefit both John and the Cancer Center.”

In fact, Kersey will remain a familiar face on the seventh floor—the site of his laboratory since the Masonic Cancer Research Building opened in September 1996. The same man who led the team that performed the world’s first successful bone marrow transplant for treating lymphoma hopes to discover better treatments for childhood leukemia and lymphoma.

“To be a part of the team that is hoping to remove cancer from the earth is very exciting,” says Kersey, who holds the Children’s Research Fund Land-Grant Chair in Pediatric Oncology.

Although his leadership of the Cancer Center required countless hours of meetings and administrative duties, Kersey—known for his quiet, methodical style—always made time for research. In fact, being an administrator was never really part of Kersey’s career plan, though it’s certainly part of his legacy.

Today the Cancer Center is not only one of just 39 National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers, it is also home to more than 400 members and receives more than $90 million annually in research funding.

More important, it has provided a place for researchers to share ideas and build on one another’s work. Interdisciplinary research initiatives in the Cancer Center have led to major breakthroughs in bone marrow transplantation as well as in breast, bone, childhood, and tobacco-related cancers

“John was the person who brought all these people together,” says Stephen Hecht, Ph.D., a leading researcher in tobacco-induced cancers whom Kersey recruited to the University of Minnesota. “This is a very collaborative center now, and the director gets the credit for that.”

Homegrown talent

Kersey has devoted his entire medical career to the University of Minnesota. Born and raised in the Twin Cities, Kersey graduated from the Medical School in 1964. He then completed residencies in pathology and pediatrics here before joining the faculty of the Departments of Pediatrics and Laboratory Medicine and Pathology in 1971.

In 1974, Kersey became director of the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program. The following year, he led the team that performed the world’s first successful bone marrow transplant for treating lymphoma, on 16-year-old David Stahl.

“Back then, with the word ‘cancer’ you thought ‘death,’” says Stahl, now a father and technical illustrator working in Golden Valley, who is believed to be the longest-living survivor of malignant lymphoma. “Dr. Kersey saved my life.”

Despite these successes, Kersey believed he and other cancer researchers could do more. Cancer research was being conducted in many different departments and schools across the University, but the researchers weren’t working together.

“There was no cohesiveness, no multidisciplinary approach to care or research,” he says. “We often worked in independent silos, and information wasn’t being shared among basic scientists, clinicians, and epidemiologists.”

Shaping a cancer center

In the 1980s, Kersey began talking to his colleagues and then-Medical School Dean David M. Brown, M.D., about creating a cancer center to bring researchers and their ideas together.

“I didn’t have any idea who should be in charge of it,” says Kersey. “I just knew that our research would benefit if more people interacted with each other.”

Brown was committed to the idea early on, but there was resistance from some faculty and the University as a whole. “Most people said, ‘Show me. Show me that’s better,’” says Kersey. “Occasionally, people said, ‘We don’t really need it.’ And I think they were wrong. We did need it, and we still need it.”

Finally, after years of discussions, the idea for a cancer center garnered support, and the board of regents approved it in 1991.

Brown quickly zeroed in on Kersey to lead the new Cancer Center. After a national search, Brown says Kersey was the clear front-runner.

“John was an outstanding and renowned scientist whose cancer research continued to be cutting-edge over several years, and he was highly respected by his colleagues at the University and nationally,” Brown says. “I knew he had the leadership skills to unite the faculty and to gain the support of the community, the University, and the National Cancer Institute.”

Tucker LeBien, Ph.D., associate director of basic research at the Cancer Center, has known Kersey for 30 years. Lebien attributes much of the Cancer Center’s success to Kersey’s “people savvy.”

“John’s legendary skill is listening to what people are interested in and then pulling them together to work toward a common goal,” says LeBien, holder of the Apogee Enterprises Chair in Cancer Research. “I’ve never witnessed anyone who is as good at that as he is.”

Longtime Cancer Center supporter Barbara Forster says his combination of world-class research credentials and exceptional interpersonal skills have made Kersey a revered leader.

“While he is very clear about the direction and the principles on which the Cancer Center is founded and guided, he is extremely collegial,” says Forster, who currently chairs the Cancer Center Community Advisory Board. “People simply want to work with him.”

Building a winning team

After the Cancer Center’s initial funding was in place, the need for a new research facility to attract top-notch researchers became apparent. Thanks in part to funding from the Masons of Minnesota, the Masonic Cancer Research Building was constructed with more than $30 million in philanthropic support, becoming the first building on campus to be constructed entirely through private dollars.

With this state-of-the-art space as a selling point, Kersey began to assemble an all-star cast of researchers. Hecht was the center’s first major external recruit.

“John impressed me as this open, honest guy, in the true Midwestern spirit,” says Hecht, who holds the Wallin Land-Grant Chair in Cancer Prevention—the first of 15 endowed chairs established in the Cancer Center—and the American Cancer Society Research Professorship. “I liked him immediately. If I hadn’t liked or trusted him, I don’t think I would have come.”

Then Kersey recruited David Largaespada, Ph.D., out of postdoctoral training to lead the center’s research in cancer genetics and to assume the Margaret Harvey Schering Land-Grant Chair in Cancer Genetics.

Douglas Yee, M.D., a nationally renowned breast cancer physician-scientist, was next. Kersey calls Yee, who is the new Cancer Center director, one of his best recruits.

“Part of the reason I came here is because of John Kersey’s efforts to bring laboratory findings to patients,” says Yee, who holds the Tickle Family Land-Grant Chair in Breast Cancer Research. “I think that’s why we all do what we do—we really want to affect the outcome of the disease.”

Kersey and colleague Ashish Kumar, M.D., Ph.D., are conducting research to improve survival rates for children with an often fatal form of leukemia.

A reason to celebrate

By the late 1990s, Kersey’s vision for a collaborative Cancer Center was becoming a reality. Leaders were ready to apply for an NCI core grant and for designation as a Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Many cancer centers have struggled for years to get that designation, but LeBien says the University was “spectacularly successful” on its first try, in 1998.

“We popped the cork on a champagne bottle I’d had on my shelf for a long while,” Kersey says.

Since then, the Cancer Center has achieved international prominence in cord-blood transplantation and has discovered techniques to more efficiently identify cancer genes. Its members have created the first animal model for studying and disabling cells responsible for bone cancer pain, identified cancer-causing substances in tobacco, and initiated studies on how genetics, diet, lifestyle, family history, and other factors affect the risk of developing breast and gynecologic cancers.

Their work contributed to research that has led to a significant increase in childhood cancer survival rates—from about 10 percent in 1959 to better than 85 percent today. They also have participated in a prominent long-term follow-up study on medical and social issues faced by survivors of childhood cancer.

A shift in focus

Kersey isn’t totally out of administration yet. In addition to his research responsibilities, he’ll serve the Cancer Center as founding director emeritus, providing a historical perspective and serving as a consultant to Yee and other Cancer Center leaders.

But Kersey is glad to return to his roots in research. He recently led a research team that developed the first mouse model with the gene for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a rare and frequently fatal form of blood cancer that most often occurs in babies less than a year old. Kersey hopes this model will help his team develop better, safer treatments for the disease.

He has set other priorities as well. “Fishing and grandkids…no golf,” Kersey says. “The grandkids are my top priority. They are the most enjoyable of all.”

He’s also looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Anne, at their log house on Lake Superior, where they’ll hike and explore the great outdoors.

But he’s certainly not ready to retire. Not yet.

“I really like the stimulation of an environment with a lot of students and young people and enthusiasm for ideas,” Kersey says. “That’s an important part of my psyche.” 

By Nicole Endres

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