Categotry Archives: Medicine


Ralph Steinman

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Categories: Medicine

It is not the policy of the Nobel Committee to award posthumous honors unless a laureate has died after the announcement was made but before the Dec. 10th award ceremony. This year, however, the committee plans to make an exception.

On Oct. 3, the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Canadian cell biologist Ralph M. Steinman, American Bruce A. Beutler of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and the Scripps Research Center in San Diego, and Jules A. Hoffmann, a former research director of the National Center for Scientific Research in Strasbourg, France. When the award was announced, the committee was unaware that Steinman had died three days prior. But after holding an emergency session to discuss the situation, the Swedish foundation reported that the coveted honor would remain in effect. As such, Steinman will posthumously receive his half of the $1.5 million award.

Born in Montreal, Steinman earned a bachelor’s degree from McGill University and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School. After completing an internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, he joined Rockefeller University in 1970 as a postdoctoral fellow. It was there, three years later, that Steinman and his mentor, Dr. Zanvil A. Cohn, discovered dendritic cells, a new class of cells that have a unique capacity to activate T-cells, which help the body fight off infection. Steinman spent the rest of his life studying these cells to better understand how they function.

Beutler and Hoffmann were cited for their discoveries in the 1990s of receptor proteins, which can recognize bacteria and other micro-organisms as they enter the body. These proteins then activate the first line of defense in the immune system, known as innate immunity. Together, these discoveries have enabled scientists to develop better vaccines against infectious diseases, and could in the future, be used to treat arthritis, cancer, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

Steinman was named the Henry G. Kunkel Professor in 1995, and appointed director of the Christopher H. Browne Center for Immunology and Immune Diseases in 1998. Prior to becoming a Nobel laureate, he was the recipient of the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the Novartis Prize in Immunology, the New York City Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Science and Technology, the Debrecen Prize in Molecular Medicine, the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research and the A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine. He also edited two volumes of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (“Cancer Vaccines: Sixth International Symposium” and “Human Immunology: Patient-Based Research”).

Steinman was so determined to prove that dendritic cells were integral to the way the body fought off disease that he used a dendritic-cell based immunotherapy of his own design to battle the cancer destroying his pancreas. “Ralph worked right up until last week,” Michel Nussenzweig, the head of molecular immunology at Rockefeller, said. “His dream was to use his discovery to cure cancer and infectious diseases like HIV and tuberculosis. It’s a dream that’s pretty close.”

Steinman died on Sept. 30 at the age of 68. He is survived by his wife, Claudia, and three children.


Jack Kevorkian


Categories: Medicine

To those who believe that people with terminal illnesses should have the right to take their own lives, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was a heroic advocate for dying with dignity. To his opponents, he was a cold-blooded killer who preyed on more than 130 people suffering from mental illness, disability and chronic pain.

Kevorkian was born in Pontiac, Mich., to a family of Armenian immigrants. As a teenager, he built his own chemistry set and lab and began inventing gadgets, including a one-tube radio and a water bicycle. After skipping several grades in school, Kevorkian attended the University of Michigan School of Medicine, where he specialized in pathology. By the time he graduated at 24, he had mastered five languages.

His medical career was interrupted for a year and a half by the Korean War, when he volunteered to serve as a medical officer in the Army. But upon his return to the states, Kevorkian began studying ways to predict imminent death by observing the eyes of patients. This research earned him the nickname “Dr. Death.”

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that states could reinstate the death penalty, Kevorkian launched a campaign to harvest the organs of consenting death row inmates for use in transplants. He deeply believed that doing so would save lives. However, these efforts were rebuffed.

In the 1980s, Kevorkian became a polarizing figure in medical circles for advocating the legalization of euthanasia. He did not believe that helping adults end their lives was a form of killing or murder; to him it was a compassionate medical service. To some religious conservatives, health care providers, disability advocates, politicians, members of the legal community and more centrist “death by dignity” organizations, it was an illegal act, one that could lead to the eradication of the aged and infirm.

In 1989, Kevorkian created a “suicide machine” that allowed terminal patients to end their own lives through the use of carbon monoxide gas or lethal drug injection. Over the next decade, he crisscrossed Michigan in his van, using The Thanatron (death machine) to help sick and dying people commit what he called “medicide.” His actions led to an arrest for first-degree murder — a charge that was later dismissed — and sparked a national debate about assisted suicide.

Michigan prosecutors would put the controversial physician through the legal wringer four times before they were able to actually convict him of second-degree murder in 1999. The state’s key piece of evidence was a videotape that Kevorkian made showing the planned death of a terminally ill patient named Thomas Youk. That video, which aired on the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” showed Kevorkian administering the lethal drugs to the 52-year-old man who was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. “[Thomas] specifically chose a direct injection because he knew that it would be quickly done and it would not fail,” Melody Youk, Thomas’ widow, said.

Kevorkian spent eight years in prison, and was only granted parole in 2007 after promising not to assist in any more suicides. But even while behind bars, people sent him thousands of letters, offering support and seeking advice on how to end their lives. A year after his release, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress. And in 2010, an HBO biopic of his life starring Al Pacino was released.

Privately, Kevorkian loved to read and assemble puzzles. He enjoyed playing the flute and the piano, and even composed classical music. After taking an art class in the 1960s, he painted nearly two dozens canvases, but eventually gave it up because he did not consider himself an artist.

Doctor-assisted suicide is now legal in Oregon, Washington and Montana. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that doctors in those states could not be prosecuted for helping terminally ill patients kill themselves.

Kevorkian died on June 3 of a pulmonary embolism. He was 83.


Del Scharber

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Categories: Medicine

dscharber.jpgDelphine Katherine Scharber was 23 years old and recently wed when her kidneys began to fail.
It was 1965, and doctors at the University of Minnesota had only been performing kidney transplants for two years. But the operation was a risk Scharber, and her mother Ottilia Winter, 52, were willing to take.
When she went under the knife, Scharber was one of the first volunteers to ever receive a kidney transplant, and her mother was one of the first living donors. Despite the newness of the procedure, the operation was a success and the donated kidney gave Scharber another 45 years to be married to her husband Bob, raise her daughter Julie, watch her grandsons play football and volunteer at her church. She also spent three decades working as a fiscal officer at the University of Minnesota-College of Education.
“She was always happy, always smiling,” said Diane Wiener, who volunteered with Scharber. “She once told me, ‘Every day I have is a gift. I could have not been here.’”
Kidney transplants are now one of the most common transplant operations performed in the U.S. At the time of this writing, the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network reports that more than 108,000 people are on a waiting list for a kidney. Although 58 percent of patients who receive kidneys from living donors survive for more than 10 years, Scharber was one of the longest-living kidney transplant patients in history.
Scharber died on Sept. 29 of a rare endocrine cancer. She was 69. At the time of her death, the donated kidney was still functioning.


Edith Shain

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Categories: Extraordinary People, Medicine

shain.jpgWhen Edith “Edie” Shain kissed a stranger 65 years ago, she became a part of history.
The New York native was working as a nurse at the now-demolished Doctors Hospital in Manhattan on August 14, 1945, when President Harry S. Truman announced that the war with Japan had ended. To celebrate, Shain headed to Times Square, where she encountered an equally-joyous American seaman wearing a dark-blue uniform. Just as she emerged from the subway, the sailor pulled Shain into his arms and kissed her. That kiss was captured by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, who published the image in Life Magazine. It eventually became the most reproduced picture in the history of the publication.
For decades, Eisenstaedt didn’t know the identity of the couple immortalized in his iconic V-J Day photograph; the couple apparently parted ways and disappeared into the cheering crowd right after the kiss ended. But in the late 1970s, Shain wrote to Eisenstaedt and claimed to be the nurse in the picture.
Shain’s letter gave the editors of Life Magazine the idea to write a followup article. That story, which appeared in the Aug. 1980 issue, urged the kissing sailor to come forward. Two months later, the editors noted that 11 men and three women had claimed to be the subjects of the photograph. Although Shain is generally considered to have the best claim — Eisenstaedt agreed that she was the woman in the picture after meeting her in California — the identity of the sailor remains a mystery.
“Someone grabbed me and kissed me, and I let him because he fought for his country,” Shain once said. “I closed my eyes when I kissed him. I never saw him.”
To commemorate the 60th anniversary of V-J Day, artist J. Seward Johnson II designed a 25-foot, 6,000 pound replica of the kiss that he called “Unconditional Surrender.” A life-size aluminum statue of the famous embrace also stands in Times Square, and each year couples gather near it and reenact the amorous moment of jubilation.
After the war ended, Shain earned an education degree from New York University. She moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s and spent the next three decades teaching kindergarten and first grade and raising a family. To make ends meet, she moonlighted as a nurse at an area hospital.
Once Shain went public about appearing in the Life magazine photo, veterans groups around the nation invited her to take part in commemorative events. In 2008, she even served as the grand marshal in New York City’s Veterans Day parade.
Shain died on June 20 of liver cancer. She was 91.
(Photo by Troy Li. Used with permission.)


Dr. George Tiller


Categories: Medicine

gtiller.jpgGeorge Richard Tiller, one of only a few doctors in America who performed late-term abortions, was shot to death on May 31. He was 67.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, Tiller earned a degree in zoology from the University of Kansas and a medical degree from the University of Kansas School of Medicine. He pursued an internship with the United States Navy, serving two years as a flight surgeon at Camp Pendleton in California, then prepared to specialize in dermatology. Those plans changed in 1970 when a plane crash took the lives of his father, mother, sister and brother-in-law.
The sudden loss of his family left Tiller with two new responsibilities: his father’s medical practice in Wichita, and the care of his 1-year-old nephew. As he prepared to close the family planning clinic, Tiller learned of the region’s need for such services. He also discovered that his father had been providing abortions, then an illegal procedure, to women in need. When the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade case legalized the practice of terminating pregnancies in 1973, Tiller decided to perform them as well.
Over the next three decades, Tiller offered reproductive health care and counseling to thousands of women. His practice, Women’s Health Care Services, became known as one of only three clinics nationwide which would provide abortion after the 21st week of pregnancy. He helped pioneer the use of sonogram imaging during procedures, served as a diplomat of the American Board of Family Practice Physicians and founded ProKanDo, a pro-women, pro-choice political action committee that helps elect abortion rights candidates and supports abortion-friendly legislation.
Tiller’s work earned him numerous awards and honors — including The Christopher Tietze Humanitarian Award and the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights’ Faith and Freedom Award — but also the wrath of the anti-abortion lobby. Protesters regularly demonstrated in front of his office, home and church. In 1986, a pipe bomb blew a hole in the clinic’s outside wall and severely damaged its interior.
Tiller was personally targeted as well. He faced, and defeated, a series of legal challenges intended to shut down his practice. His name and photograph were included on “Wanted” posters and assassination lists, and his home address was published on the Web. In 1993, abortion opponent Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon shot him in both arms with a semiautomatic pistol; she’s still serving time for attempted murder.
Federal marshals protected the doctor between 1994 and 1998, and again in 2001 when Operation Rescue urged thousands of activists to blockade his practice. Tiller installed bulletproof glass on the clinic and hired a private security team to protect the patients and staff; however, these efforts failed to stop the demonstrations, threats and property destruction. Just last month, vandals cut wires to the clinic’s security cameras and outside lights, and cut a hole in the roof. Rain poured through the opening and caused thousands of dollars in damages.
On Sunday morning, Tiller was handing out bulletins in the foyer of the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita when a gunman entered and fired one shot at him. The assailant then threatened two bystanders before fleeing the premises. Several witnesses to the attack were able to describe the suspect to authorities and provide a description of his car and license plate number.
Three hours later, police arrested Scott Roeder, 51, and charged him with first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault. Although officials said they believed it was “the act of an isolated individual,” they also plan to look into “his history, his family, his associates.” Roeder was previously convicted of explosives charges after the police discovered a blasting cap, a fuse cord, a pound of gunpowder, ammunition and two 9-volt batteries in the trunk of his car. The conviction was later overturned on appeal on the grounds that the search was illegal.
Despite the arrival of paramedics minutes after the attack occurred, Tiller died at the scene. He was the fourth abortion doctor killed in the United States. Tiller is survived by his wife, Jeanne, who was inside the church sanctuary at the time of the shooting, 4 children and 10 grandchildren. “George dedicated his life to providing women with high-quality health care despite frequent threats and violence,” his family said in a statement. “We ask that he be remembered as a good husband, father and grandfather and a dedicated servant on behalf of the rights of women everywhere.”
[Update - Jan. 29, 2010: A jury in Wichita, Kan., deliberated for just over a half hour before finding Scott Roeder guilty of murdering Dr. George Tiller. Roeder was also convicted of two counts of aggravated assault for threatening others in the church. He faces life in prison for the slaying.]

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