During his long and distinguished career as a cancer researcher at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Eckhard Podack, M.D., Ph.D., made a series of scientific discoveries pointing the way toward more effective treatments for lung cancer, infectious diseases and disorders of the immune system. The renowned professor and Chairman of the Miller School’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Podack passed away on Thursday, October 8, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
“Our loss is substantial, not only of a friend who we adored and shared wonderful memories with, but also of a colleague whose talent was akin to those who have received the Nobel Prize,” said Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and CEO of UHealth, the University of Miami Health System.
A fellow in the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy, Podack was widely respected around the world for his pioneering laboratory studies and dedication to finding better treatments for cancer patients and patients with severe infections, such as HIV and listeriosis. In the past four decades, Podack wrote or contributed to more than 305 professional articles, books and monographs.
“This is a sad loss to Eckhard’s family, his colleagues, his department, the School and basically to all of humanity from his unfinished work,” said Karl L. Magleby, Ph.D., professor and Chair of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics.
A native of Germany who became interested in cancer research at an early age, Podack joined the Miller School in 1987 and became department Chairman in 1994.
Diana M. Lopez, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology and Director of the department’s Undergraduate Program, invited Podack to Miami to speak about his research in 1985 after meeting him at two scientific conferences.
“You could tell immediately how brilliant he was,” she said. “Our faculty was very impressed, especially our Chair at the time, Dr. Wayne Streilein. He was charged with building our immunology program, and he thought it was a momentous achievement that we were able to attract a scientist of Eckhard’s caliber to Miami. He was doing translational work here before anyone else. When Wayne left to go to Harvard in 1994, Eckhard succeeded him.”
Together Lopez and Podack recently introduced a highly successful new undergraduate course that he had created called Innate Immunity.
“He was passionate about teaching,” Lopez said, “and we had 102 students sign up for the first course. He taught it, and the students loved it. He was just as passionate about his research, and before he died he was very excited about a new project he was beginning. Eckhard especially enjoyed helping young scientists start their career. He was not only a brilliant scientist, but also a very nice man. He is going to be irreplaceable.”
“Eckhard was an exceptional educator who was loved by his students, faculty and staff,” said Sylvia Daunert, Ph.D., Professor and Lucille P. Markey Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Associate Director of the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Biomedical Nanotechnology Institute. “He was also dedicated to turning scientific discoveries into effective clinical treatments.”
In the early 1990s, Podack created a monoclonal antibody to seek out and attach to CD-30, a receptor on lymphoma cells. He sold the technology to Seattle Genetics, which developed SGN-35, a therapy designed to target only cancer cells, leaving healthy tissue alone.
Podack also discovered Perforin-1 and, more recently, Perforin-2, antibacterial proteins that help the body’s immune system defend against infectious disease. One of Podack’s last published studies, “Perforin-2 is essential for intracellular defense of parenchymal cells and phagocytes against pathogenic bacteria,” appeared online September 24 in the eLife Sciences Journal. He was the lead author of the Miller School study.
“Eckhard’s work on immune therapies for cancer, and the killing of microorganisms with the Perforin family of proteins that he discovered, will have a long-lasting impact on our fellow humans,” Goldschmidt said.
Another of Podack’s accomplishments was developing a novel lung cancer vaccine using gp-96, a heat shock protein, to treat non-small cell lung cancer, which accounts for 85 percent of all lung cancers. For these patients, surgery and chemotherapy are often the only options, so this treatment will fill a substantial need.
While conventional vaccines are used to prevent infectious diseases, Podack’s treatment revs up the immune system to produce T cells and natural killer cells to fight the cancer. He also developed tumor necrosis factor receptor (TNFR) 25 agonists and antagonists that allow the immune system to attack cancer cells more effectively.
In order to translate his discoveries into clinical treatments, Podack launched Heat Biologics in 2008 to develop “ImPACT” (Immune Pan-Antigen Cytotoxic Therapy), a proprietary cell-based immunotherapy for use in the treatment of a wide range of cancers. Heat Biologics completed a successful initial public offering in 2013, and continues to develop its leading-edge therapy.
Podack earned his medical degree from Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1968, and his doctoral degree from Georg-August University of Göttingen, Germany, in 1972. He also completed a postdoctoral fellowship in biochemistry in 1974 at Georg-August University.
He joined the Department of Immunology at the Research Institute of Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California, in 1974. A decade later, he joined New York Medical College as professor of microbiology and immunology, and also became professor of medicine, before moving to Miami in 1987. Since 2009, he was also a guest professor at Shandong Gallo Institute of Virology at Shandong Academy of Medical Sciences in Jinan, China.
“Eckhard was a giant in his field, and his work will continue to advance through his outstanding colleagues in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and beyond,” Goldschmidt said. “We want to extend our sincerest condolences to Eckhart’s beloved wife, Kristin, and the entire Podack family.”
The Miller School will schedule a celebration of Podack’s life in the near future.
Donations in his memory may be made to:
Partners in Health: https://donate.pih.org/give-today
Florida Grand Opera: http://tickets.fgo.org/contribution/index.aspx
FGO donations should be designated for Mainstage Productions as a Memorial Gift in the name of Dr. Eckhard Podack.