Walter Eckhart, who helped transform the Salk Institute into a power in cancer research, dies at 84

Biochemist Walter Eckhart, whose knowledge of the difficult nature of cancer helped other scientists develop life-saving drugs such as Gleevec and Avastin and helped establish the Salk Institute as one of the world’s leading biomedical research centers, died in La Jolla. It was 84.

His wife, Karen Lane, said he died at his home on June 21 from natural causes near Salk, where colleagues say he showed an almost earlier ability to recruit gifted scientists during a career spanning more than half a century.

“I am shocked that he left. “He never seemed to get older,” said one of the recruits, Geoffrey Wahl. “Much of what the institute has done is due to Walter.”

Many called him Uncle Walter because of his sweet, caring demeanor. His colleagues say his kind demeanor belied the soul of a guided leader and scientist whose idea of ​​fun required more work.

The institute’s namesake, Jonas Salk, who invented the first effective polio vaccine, appointed Eckhart director of the Salk Cancer Center in 1976, when there was a lot of money for national research on the “cancer war” that had begun. President Richard Nixon five years earlier. .

Eckhart was just 38 years old at the time and a rather inferior figure in a new and often chaotic institute where Nobel laureates such as Francis Crick and Robert Holey dominated the attention of the people.

But Eckhart – who was known for his quiet diplomacy – prospered during his 32-year tenure as director, recruiting such future decorators as Ron Evanswhose study of hormones helped others develop drugs to fight cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Eckhart also recruited Tony Hunter, a young British biologist who shared his interest in exploring the mechanics of how cancer develops and how it could be suppressed. Their fundamental work made them famous and was important in the creation of Gleevec, an anti-cancer drug that was of particular importance to Eckhart. He was used to sending his niece’s leukemia into remission.

Hunter, who succeeded Eckhart as director, said: “Walter was a very humble and good leader. He basically let us do what we wanted, but he always had good advice on how to do it. “

Eckhart was born on May 22, 1938 in Jonkers, New York. His father, also known as Walter, was a teacher who taught his son the value of austerity and determination. These values ​​were reinforced by his mother, Jean, a housewife.

Later in life, Eckhart’s colleagues would witness the results. We always found him at noon in the Salk travertine courtyard, eating a cheese sandwich he had made the night before at his home on Mount Soledad, one of the most expensive areas in San Diego. The big blue Pacific stretched out in front of him. But he was usually immersed in discussions about the store with his lab colleague, Suzanne Simon.

Science was the source of oxygen.

Eckhart earned a degree in biophysics from Yale University in 1960 and then, at the age of 22, made a bold move, sending a letter to Crick asking if he could work in his lab that summer at Cambridge University.

Crick was a superstar, having co-discovered the structure of DNA seven years earlier with James Watson. He won both men and Maurice Wilkins, a Nobel Prize.

“Francis responded and said politely, ‘No, sorry, we have no room,'” Lane, his widow, told the Union-Tribune. “Walter, being austere, wrote back and said, ‘Well, I really do not need much space.’ They wrote back and forth until Francis said yes.

“Walter took a ship to England and was sick all the time. He never boarded a ship again. “And he was so terrified of Crick that he walked for two days before he dared to go to his lab and say hello.”

This was not the extent of their relationship. Crick joined the Salk School at the same time that Eckhart was taking over the cancer center. Jonas Salk recruited many stars like Crick, believing that talent attracts talent, a philosophy that would benefit Eckhart. And one that will last.

In 1965, after earning his doctorate at UC Berkeley, Eckhart was recruited to Salk by virologist Renato Dulbecco, who was on his way to winning the Nobel. Eckhart started as a postdoctoral researcher and quickly rose through the ranks. Until the 1970s, he attracted talents such as Hunter, Evans and Wahl, a specialist in breast and pancreatic cancer.

Ruben Shaw, another Schalke cancer researcher, admires how things turned out.

“Walter was involved in recruiting a whole generation of cancer researchers,” Shaw said. “He put Salk on the map in that area.

“He was a gentlemanly scientist, good at making mistakes and very good at bringing people together.”

Salk says Eckhart was left behind by his wife, Karen Lane. her daughter and son-in-law, Jasmine and David Penick, and their children, Shane and Emma. Eckhart’s sister, Elizabeth Nagle, and her husband, Jack Nagle. Nephew Rob Nagle and his wife, Heather Allyn. and nephew David Nagle, his wife, Siana Nagle, and their daughters, Imogen and Sally.

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Walter Eckhart, who helped transform the Salk Institute into a power in cancer research, dies at 84 Source link Walter Eckhart, who helped transform the Salk Institute into a power in cancer research, dies at 84

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