Category Archives: In Memoriam

In Memory of Marianne Wessling-Resnick

Marianne Wessling-Resnick passed away on November 13th, 2019 after a long and private struggle with breast cancer. She was 61 years old. Marianne was a Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry in the Department of Genetics & Complex Diseases at the Harvard School of Healthin Boston, Massachusetts. A native of the Boston area, Marianne obtained her BS degree in Chemistry from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a PhD in Biomedical Sciences from UMass Medical School. In 1990, she started as Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, where she moved through the ranks to Professor in 2000. In addition to her research and teaching, Marianne served as a standing member and chair of three consecutive NIH study sections (1998–2012), chair of East Coast Iron Club (1994–1996), co-chair of the FASEB Conference on Micronutrients: Trace Elements (2001), and director of the PhD Program in Biomedical Sciences at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (2010–2014). Marianne’s research over the years covered wide territory including biochemical, molecular, and cellular mechanisms of iron transport and homeostasis, manganese transport and neurotoxicity, and endocytic vesicle trafficking. In recent years, she was known throughout the nutritional biochemistry community for her many contributions to our understanding of how iron status and genetic factors regulate iron and manganese uptake via intestinal, pulmonary, and olfactory pathways. Having trained over 30 post-doctoral fellows in her laboratory at Harvard, she was highly regarded as a dedicated and supportive mentor of the next generation of biomedical scientists. As such, she was frequently sought—by junior faculty at Harvard and beyond—for her solid advice on career and life. She seemed to know something about everything, was generous with her time and advice, and despite a strong exterior, she was known by many as a remarkably caring and compassionate individual. She will be dearly missed by hercolleagues and friends at Harvard, the BioIron Society, and the trace element community. Marianneis survived by her husband Paul Resnick and her son Timothy.

Mitch Knutson (University of Florida), Khristy Thompson (Harvard School of Public Health), Jonghan Kim (Northeastern University), and Young-Ah Seo (University of Michigan)

 

Prem Ponka Legacy

Prem Ponka (born as Přemysl Poňka) passed away while at a conference in Paris. He was Professor of Physiology at McGill University and Senior Investigator at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research in Montreal, Canada. He obtained his MD in 1964 and his PhD (in Physiology) in 1969 from Charles University, Prague. From 1968 to 1979 he served as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pathophysiology at Charles University in Prague. As Czechoslovakia was then under an oppressive communist rule, he emigrated to Montreal in 1979 under difficult circumstances, and resumed his academic career at McGill and the Lady Davis Institute. While still behind the “iron curtain”, Prem developed an interest in the study of iron and heme metabolism and throughout his career continued making major contributions in this area of research. Prem demonstrated that iron uptake is the limiting factor for erythroid heme synthesis. He formulated the ‘kiss-and-run hypothesis”, according to which iron is directly delivered from endosomes to mitochondria in erythroid cells. He discovered a critical role of the heme catabolic enzyme heme oxygenase in erythroid cell physiology. Furthermore, Prem developed a new class of cell permeable iron chelators (SIH, PIH and analogues), which are widely used by researchers in the field. Prem was an active member of the BioIron Society and organized its first international conference in Prague in 2005. He also organized an earlier “iron conference” in Montebello, Quebec, in 1987. Prem was an acclaimed scientist who received broad recognition for his work, and was in high demand as a lecturer and peer-reviewer of manuscripts and grant proposals in Canada, USA, Czech Republic and elsewhere. He was a devoted colleague with encyclopedic knowledge of the history and personalities of the bioiron field, and a renaissance man with a broad interest in science, history, philosophy and arts. He was a dedicated proponent of political and intellectual freedom and tolerance, with a unique sense of humor. Prem had no plans to retire and passed away as an active scientist, exactly as he envisioned. He is survived by his wife Dr. Jitka Ponka, adult children Dr. David Ponka and Claire Ponka, and grandchildren. Prem will be greatly missed by his colleagues at the BioIron Society, McGill University and the Lady Davis Institute.

Kostas Pantopoulos (McGill University) and Tomas Ganz (UCLA)

In memory of Leo Richard Zacharski

It was with great sadness that we learned that Leo Richard Zacharski, MD, passed away on August 23, 2019 at the age of 81. 

Leo Richard Zacharski Leo attended Wayne State University and then received his MD degree in 1962 from Wayne State Medical School in Detroit. He served an internship at Harper Hospital in Detroit followed by a residency in internal medicine and subspecialty training in hematology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He served as a Captain in the US Army Medical Corp from 1966 to 1968. He was appointed Assistant Professor of Medicine at Dartmouth Medical School and Staff Physician at the VA Hospital in White River Junction, Vermont in January 1970. He specialized in diagnosis and treatment of patients with bleeding and clotting disease, and also iron overload disease. While early motivations were toward medical missions, the heart of his career was devotion to biomedical research believing that he could best serve humanity through discovery and innovation. He was awarded Research Career Development positions at the VA hospital and became the Associate Chief of Staff for Research there in 1985, a position held until retirement from the VA in 2004. During his tenure with the VA he authored over 250 published papers and over 100 abstracts. He served as Chairman of three National VA Cooperative Studies. He achieved the rank of Professor of Medicine in 1985 and became Professor of Medicine Active Emeritus in 2013. Devotion to his “calling” prompted continuation of his research following retirement. His most productive years followed retirement during which he coined the term, “ferrotoxic disease”, referring to diseases of aging caused by oxidative stress due to progressive iron accumulation. He was a member of the American College of Physicians, American Society of Hematology, International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis, International BioIron Society and East-West Iron Club; and served on the Medical Advisory Board of the Iron Disorders Institute (irondisorders.org). His personal Christian faith prompted deep appreciation of the elegant intricacy and beauty of the “natural order” which was the basis for his devotion to biomedical research.

Xi Huang, Ph.D.

Founder and President

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Laying Down a Solid “Iron Foundation”: Professor Erica Baker

Erica Baker (2018)

A dedication to Erica Baker will appear in an upcoming Special Issue of Biochimica et Biophysica Acta specifically on cellular and molecular mechanisms of iron metabolism. The dedication, written by Des Richardson, is posted in its entirety below.

______________________

 This special issue of Biochim. Biophys. Acta is devoted to the study of the molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in iron metabolism. It is especially dedicated in memory of Professor Erica Baker (Figure 1) of the Department of Physiology, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia. 

Erica was a true pioneer in the field of cellular iron metabolism, having contributed substantially to the understanding of the role of endocytosis in the internalization of iron from transferrin in erythroid cells and hepatocytes. She was a co-worker of Winthrop Professor Evan Morgan in seminal studies that have had a lasting influence in understanding cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in iron metabolism.

As a pertinent example of Erica’s studies is the reprint in this issue of a landmark article that was originally published in Biochim. Biophys Acta in 1969, which examined whether the mechanism of iron uptake from transferrin was energy-dependent using metabolic inhibitors [1]. At the time, and even for many years later [2, 3], there was much controversy as to whether iron was released at the cell surface, or was actively transported into cells via an energy-dependent mechanism involving receptor-mediated endocytosis after transferrin became bound to the transferrin receptor 1. 

Studies by Erica and Evan were landmarks in the field, and unlike others who used cell lines of doubtful physiological significance, they implemented primary cultures of physiologically-relevant cell-types (reticulocytes and hepatocytes) to define the role of endocytosis in iron and transferrin uptake. In later years, her attention turned to the development of iron chelators for the treatment of iron-loading diseases and cancer [4, 5]. As such, her investigations have contributed to a burgeoning field in pharmacological research assessing chelators for the treatment of neoplasia and other diseases.

Erica received First Class Honours in Physiology and her PhD degree in 1970. She then spent her post-doctoral career at Kings College, London, working with eminent scientists in the field, including Professors E. Huehns and A. Tavill. She returned to the University of Western Australia in 1978 to a highly prestigious appointment as one of few National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Fellows in Perth.

Significantly, Erica was funded continuously by the NHMRC for 28 years until her retirement in 2007, by which time she was an NHMRC Senior Research Fellow. Apart from being a passionate and dedicated research scientist, she was an incredible friend and mentor, who supported the development of many careers in the field, including my own.

Unfortunately, Erica was afflicted by a crippling neurological condition, which she fought bravely for many years, while raising three highly successful children, and continuing her research work at the very highest level.  

The current special issue serves as a tribute to her pioneering achievements and outstanding mentorship in the field that has laid down a solid, “iron foundation”, for others to build upon.

Des R. Richardson B.Sc., M.Sc., Ph.D., D.Sc. (UWA), F.F.Sc., FRCPath (UK)
Professor of Cancer Cell Biology,
NHMRC Senior Principal Research Fellow
Director, Molecular Pharmacology and Pathology Program
Leader, Cancer Cell Biology and Development Theme, Bosch Institute
Medical Foundation Building (K25), 92-94 Parramatta Rd, Level 2, Room 253
University of Sydney,
Sydney, New South Wales, 2006, Australia
Ph: +61-2-9036-3026

References

  1. Morgan, E.H. and Baker, E. (1969) The effect of metabolic inhibitors on transferrin and iron uptake and transferrin release from reticulocytes. Biochim. Biophys. Acta. 184:442-54.
  2. Baker, E. (1977) In: Iron metabolism, Ciba Foundation Symposium 51, New Series, p367, Elsevier, Exerpta Medica, North Holland, Amsterdam.
  3. Richardson, D.R. and Baker, E. (1994) Two saturable mechanisms of iron uptake from transferrin in human melanoma cells. The effect of transferrin concentration, chelators and metabolic probes on transferrin and iron uptake. J. Cell. Physiol. 161: 160-168.
  4. Baker, E., Richardson, D.R., Gross, S. and Ponka, P. (1992) Evaluation of the iron chelation potential of hydrazones of pyridoxal, salicylaldehyde and 2-hydroxy-1-naphthylaldehyde using the hepatocyte in culture. Hepatology 15: 492-501.
  5. Richardson, D.R., Ponka, P. and Baker, E. (1994) The effect of the iron(III) chelator, desferrioxamine, on iron and transferrin uptake by the human malignant melanoma cell. Cancer Res. 54: 685-689.

 

Erica Baker
Figure 1: Professor Erica Baker in the cell culture suite at the Department of Physiology, University of Western Australia.

 

Peter Geisser (1945 – 2018)

The ‘Iron Man’ of Vifor Pharma

The late Dr Peter Geisser was a key figure on the St Gallen site for over 40 years. First, as apprentice, then as research leader, later driving the research effort for more than 20 years and finally, after retirement, becoming the company’s consultant and scientific expert. It is not an exaggeration to say that Vifor Pharma would not be what it is today if it had not been for Peter Geisser. Etienne Jornod, Executive Chairman, likes to point out, Vifor Pharma is a pharmaceutical company “based on nothing but water, sugar and iron”. The fact that we have been able to build a global specialisation on a foundation of three apparently unpromising commodities owes a huge debt to Peter’s passion, intellect, perseverance, discipline and mastery of his subject.

One of Peter’s first big breakthroughs was on Maltofer® in the 1970s. Fresh from his doctoral thesis on complex metal chemistry, he was assigned to develop a chewable tablet formulation. In the process, he and his team were also responsible for standardising Maltofer® to provide the product consistency that we have today. Interviewed for the product’s 40th anniversary, Peter was passionate about his favourite subject of safe and effective iron delivery. “It is a fantastic opportunity to be able to treat iron deficiency. People everywhere – particularly women and children – need something better than conventional oral iron preparations. We have something better – and it is very hard to copy because iron complex chemistry is very difficult. There are millions of possibilities for creating a solution. It’s like playing chess. You have to think how to put things in the right sequence to win.”

Throughout his career, Peter was a tireless champion for iron therapy. Back in 1991, parent company Galenica had been all set to get rid of the Hausmann-Vifor iron products. It was Peter’s unshakable belief – and Etienne Jornod’s faith in Peter – that saved them. More than quarter of a century later, our portfolio of iron-based products treats millions of patients around the world. Our story would have been very different without him.

Transforming ideas into successful products

Part of Peter’s success lay in the fact that his approach was always firmly rooted in a clear definition of patient need. Talking in recent years about the development of Ferinject®, he recalled, “The idea for a new i.v. iron product came from feedback from clinics. There was evidence of adverse effects and dose limitations with existing products on the market. Most patients with anaemia need between 1,000 and 1,500 mg iron. The need to develop a new i.v. iron product was obvious. It had to be able to be administered quickly and at high doses and have as few adverse effects as possible.” So began an exhaustive three-year process to synthesize and test over 1,000 molecules to arrive at ferric carboxymaltose, the active ingredient of Ferinject®. It then took another five years of work to prove that this formula met our high expectations for efficacy and side effect profile.

Peter could also be highly creative. Head of Chemical & Analytical Development Erik Philipp was a long-time colleague. He remembers accompanying Peter on a visit to B.Braun back in 1994. On the table, a deal to manufacture a phosphate binder for dialysis patients. During discussions, it emerged that B.Braun’s substance was too expensive for oral use so that was the end of the project. Far from being discouraged, Peter was stimulated by this set-back. “We spent the train trip home brain storming about how we could manufacture such a preparation more cost-efficiently. By the time we got off the train, we had the basis for developing Velphoro®, our own phosphate binder that is now marketed in many countries, including the US and EU.” It was a typical example of how Peter could transform ideas into successful products.  

A sense of ownership

Throughout his career, Peter was totally committed to ‘his’ people and products. His strong sense of ownership, combined with a decisive and forthright character, meant that if Peter felt something needed doing, he did it. St Gallen Site Manager Hans-Martin Müller remembers how, in his first year with Vifor International as Production Manager, he took few days’ holiday in Amsterdam. At the time, some researchers – including Peter Geisser – stuck to strict research parameters that were much narrower than the official specification. While he was away, Peter shut down production; Hans-Martin returned to find 15 operatives with nothing to do!  

One of Hans-Martin’s first responsibilities in 1999 was to codify the manufacturing process to comply with increasing and more demanding regulations. Peter, of course, was the main source of information, but at that stage, much of it was still in his head, so he took the time to commit his knowledge to paper, creating the site’s production ‘bible’. Hans-Martin also recalls that Peter had a hard time being tactful with so-called ‘experts’! “It took him a little while to realise you can’t tell an FDA inspector he’s wrong!”

Having retired in 2010, Peter still worked around two days a week as the company’s consultant and scientific expert. He remained until the end an invaluable source of knowledge on all things iron, giving input for presentations, contributing to books and papers, always happy to help with answering questions for registrations. He was an excellent company ambassador, speaking at industry events and, for many years, his talks were a highlight of visits to St Gallen. Hans-Martin remembers, “Peter had a gift for convincing people with demonstrations and easy-to-understand experiments. In his white lab coat, with his bushy hair and infectious enthusiasm, he really looked the part of the crazy scientist! And he was always pleased to do it.”

With more than 70 publications and 20 patents to his name, Peter Geisser has left his mark on iron chemistry, iron therapy and parenteral nutrition. And he has left an enduring mark on his friends and colleagues around the world, inside and outside the company. His informed mind and incisive delivery will be missed. If you are visiting St Gallen, you will notice that the wall of the staircase in the new packaging facility has been painted with people’s silhouettes. Among them, the unmistakable outline of Peter in his lab coat, peering into a flask: every inch the researcher. As he would no doubt wish to be remembered.


A life in research…

1961-1965 Laboratory technician apprenticeship with Hausmann Laboratories in St. Gallen
1965-1968 Chemical Engineering degree from the Ingenieurschule, Winterthur’ Switzerland
1968-1972 PhD in Chemistry at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland
1972-1974 Post Doctorate in Organic Synthetic Chemistry at the University of Bern
1974-1986 Leader, Synthesis and Galenics, R & D Department, Hausmann Laboratories, St. Gallen
1986-1989 Head of R & D, Hausmann Laboratories Inc., St. Gallen
Vice-director from 1987
1989-1992 Scientific Expert and Head of the new Hausmann/Vifor Chemistry and Biochemistry
                Research Department
1991-1992 Member of the Executive Board of Hausmann Laboratories
1992-2001 Head of Research and member of Vifor International Executive Board
2001-2006 Scientific Director and member of Vifor International Executive Board
2006-2008   Head of R&D, Scientific Director and member of Vifor International Executive Board
2008-2010 Scientific Director of Vifor Pharma, Vifor International
2010-2018 Consultant and Scientific Expert