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John Ohlfest

, Star Tribune

John Ohlfest taken by cancer, his familiar foe

  • Article by: JOSEPHINE MARCOTTY
  • Star Tribune
  • February 9, 2013 - 7:31 PM

John Ohlfest had lofty goals -- he wanted to cure the incurable and change the practice of medicine.

And though he made enormous progress, he died Jan. 21 from malignant melanoma before he could find the brain cancer cure he had pursued for much of his career as a researcher at the University of Minnesota.

He was 35 years old. He is survived by his wife, Karen, and two small children.

Ohlfest, director of the Neurosurgery Gene Therapy Program at the university and an associate professor of pediatrics, was regarded as a pioneer in the treatment of brain tumors using gene therapy and novel treatments designed to boost patients' immune systems.

In recent years, his work on brain tumors in dogs also gained national prominence. One of his most famous patients was a black mutt with big pointy ears named Batman.

Dogs develop the same kind of brain tumors as humans do. Ohlfest and his university colleagues came up with the strategy of using dogs who had tumors as a way to test the safety and effectiveness of treatment in people. As part of that process, they were able to find a cure for the dogs -- including Batman, who, thanks to the treatment, survived his tumor and lived for several years. That treatment, a cancer vaccine, is now being tested for use in humans.

Dr. John Wagner, director of the university's pediatric and bone marrow transplant program and Ohlfest's boss, said Ohlfest never accepted "it can't be done." It was that drive and that vision that made him one of the youngest researchers ever to run a medical research laboratory, Wagner said. He was named the first Hedberg Family/Children's Cancer Research Fund Endowed Chair in Brain Tumor Research.

Ohlfest grew up in Sioux City, Iowa. Wagner said that as a kid he kept a menagerie of animals in the basement of his family's home -- exotic lizards, snakes, frogs, spiders and piranhas. He even had a mouse colony -- perhaps a sign of things to come.

He studied molecular biology at Iowa State University, and spent a lot of time listening to heavy metal bands before receiving a bachelor of science degree 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.

Wagner said it was the death of his grandmother from ovarian cancer that inspired his passion.

"Her ordeal profoundly changed John," Wagner said at Ohlfest's memorial service on Jan. 25.

"John underwent a metamorphosis, taking the energy of the heavy metal, guitar-playing, reptile biologist and emerging into the scientist we came to know, whose singular focus was finding a cure for cancer."

Ohlfest completed his Ph.D. in 3 1/2 years. He then completed a post-doctoral degree in six months, which usually takes three or four years. He was then offered a tenure-track faculty position, which "raised some eyebrows," Wagner said. Ohlfest's melanoma was diagnosed last summer. After standard treatments failed, he volunteered to participate in experimental trials sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

Wagner said that while in the hospital during treatment, Ohlfest encountered a little girl who also had a devastating cancer, and that made him realize that the disease didn't just kill people -- it destroyed families.

"He said, 'if I get out of this ... watch out because I'm pissed. I'm mad. If I can get out of this, oh, boy, we're going to unleash a new reign of terror on cancer. I'm serious.'"

And now, Wagner said, "for John, we carry on."

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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