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A culture of collaboration

John Kersey, M.D., is founding director of the University of Minnesota Cancer Center.

Endowed chair to honor longtime Cancer Center director

When asked to name Dr. John Kersey’s single greatest quality, those who know him well list several: honesty, fairness, and a collaborative spirit.

“John’s legendary skill is listening to what people are interested in and then pulling them together to work toward a common goal,” says Tucker LeBien, Ph.D., deputy director of the University of Minnesota Cancer Center, who has worked with Kersey for 30 years. “I’ve never witnessed anyone who is as good at that as he is.”

As founding director of the Cancer Center, Kersey has had a major influence in making the center what it is today—home to more than 400 cancer researchers and one of the nation’s 39 National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers.

To honor Kersey’s professional contributions to the field and his 15-year run as director, Cancer Center supporters are partnering with the University to establish an endowed chair in his honor.

The John H. Kersey Chair in Cancer Research will be fully funded at $5 million—$2.5 million in donor contributions plus a dollar-for-dollar match from the University. Longtime Cancer Center proponents Barbara Forster and Winston and Maxine Wallin have given a total of $500,000 to kick off the fundraising effort.

“There’s no way you can adequately honor the kind of work John has done, but this felt like our best attempt at doing that,” says Forster, who chairs the Cancer Center Community Advisory Board.

“John Kersey played the key role in creating the Comprehensive Cancer Center that we have today—a marvelous achievement,” adds Winston Wallin.

A career commitment

Kersey has devoted his entire career to the University of Minnesota. After graduating from the Medical School in 1964 and completing residencies in pathology and pediatrics here, he joined the faculty in 1971.

He became director of the University’s Blood and Marrow Transplant Program in 1974. The following year, he led a team that performed the world’s first successful bone marrow transplant for treating lymphoma.

Yet despite this and other cancer-related breakthroughs, Kersey believed something was missing. Cancer research was happening in many different departments and schools, but the researchers weren’t working together.

“There was no cohesiveness, no multidisciplinary approach to care or research,” Kersey says. “We were siloed, and information wasn’t shared among basic scientists, clinicians, and epidemiologists.”

He believed a cancer center would be an ideal place to bring them all together. Initially, there wasn’t much support for the idea, says Kersey, but finally, in 1991, the Board of Regents approved the Cancer Center. Kersey was named acting director, and after a national search for a director, “The committee decided I was the lesser of the evils,” says the ever-modest Kersey, who now holds the Children’s Cancer Research Fund Land-Grant Chair in Pediatric Oncology.

John Kersey, M.D., and colleague Ashish Kumar, M.D., Ph.D., conduct research on an often fatal form of infant leukemia.

Building a winning team

In the decade that followed, the Masonic Cancer Research Building was constructed—thanks in part to funding from the Minnesota Masons—allowing Kersey to attract more nationally renowned cancer researchers to his team.

The Cancer Center’s first major external recruitment was Stephen Hecht, Ph.D., a leading researcher in tobacco-induced cancers, in 1996. “John is such an open person, so easy to talk to,” says Hecht, who now holds the Wallin Land-Grant Chair in Cancer Prevention and the American Cancer Society Research Professorship. “If I hadn’t liked or trusted him, I don’t think I would have come.”

Kersey also recruited two other top-notch researchers who he says were crucial to the Cancer Center’s success: David Largaespada, Ph.D., who holds the Margaret Harvey Schering Land-Grant Chair in Cancer Genetics, and Douglas Yee, M.D., who holds the Tickle Family Land-Grant Chair in Breast Cancer Research and in March was named the Cancer Center’s new director.

The Cancer Center then applied 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.

Today the Cancer Center receives more than $90 million annually in research funding. And more important, collaborations among its researchers have resulted in major strides in bone marrow transplantation as well as in breast, bone, childhood, and tobacco-related cancers.

“John was really the person who brought all these people together,” says Hecht. “This is a very collaborative center now, and the director gets the credit for that.”

Looking ahead

Kersey’s colleagues see the endowed chair as a fitting way to honor his legacy at the Cancer Center. “It is a permanent way to recognize John as the founding director,” LeBien says.

As Cancer Center director, Yee will be the first Kersey chair holder. “It is a real honor for me to take over the Cancer Center from Dr. Kersey,” Yee says. “He has been both a mentor and a role model to me. His career has demonstrated the strength of translational approaches to cancer.

“While Kersey plans to spend more time fishing and playing with his grandchildren, he’ll also continue his commitment to the Cancer Center as director emeritus and a childhood leukemia researcher.

“Opportunities still exist to grow and become one of the top cancer centers in the nation,” Kersey says. “To be a part of the team that is hoping to remove cancer from the face of the earth is very exciting.”

To contribute to the John H. Kersey Chair in Cancer Research contact Cathy Spicola at 612-625-5192 or

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