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ASCO Remembers Dr. Karen A. Johnson

Dec 03, 2010

November 2010: The Society mourns the loss of long-time ASCO volunteer Karen A. Johnson, MD, PhD, MPH, who died of ovarian cancer on August 19, 2010, at the age of 64.

Dr. Johnson was known by her colleagues as a researcher who was passionate about cancer prevention and translating it into patient benefit, even before her diagnosis, explained Leslie Ford, MD, of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Dr. Johnson was a long-time colleague and friend of Dr. Ford’s.

“Karen never presented herself as a ‘cancer victim,’” said Dr. Ford. “People might have known her diagnosis, but I don’t think many people knew how often she went from chemo to being in an all-day meeting or even multi-day meeting. Her passion for her work kept her going.”

With her first degree, a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, Dr. Johnson began her professional journey in the sciences as a research chemist in Wilmington, Delaware. From there, she pursued her doctorate in inorganic chemistry in the 1970’s, and her medical degree in the 1980’s.

“She was one of our first cancer prevention fellows [at the NCI Division of Cancer Prevention] back in the late 1980’s when I first met her,” said Dr. Ford. “She used to joke about getting a degree a decade, and then she got her master’s in public health [in 1995] after that.”

Dr. Johnson first joined NCI in 1986. After two years, she returned to Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, first as a research oncologist, and later became an assistant professor. From 1991 to 1996, she returned to NCI as program director of the Community Oncology and Rehabilitation Branch. She then became medical reviewer for the Food and Drug Administration from 1996 to 1998, and eventually returned again to NCI once more, first as Medical Officer of the Division of Cancer Prevention, and then as Chief of Breast and Gynecologic Cancer Research Group for the same division.

Dr. Johnson joined ASCO in 1999. She was most notable for her work on the Society’s cancer prevention efforts. Dr. Johnson became a member of the Cancer Prevention Committee in 2007. In this role, she strongly advocated for ASCO initiatives to increase participation in prevention-related clinical trials, particularly in the existing Community Clinical Oncology Program. Dr. Johnson pushed for greater emphasis on cancer prevention research in a broad sense, not just chemoprevention, but also epidemiology, tobacco control, biomarkers, biosample repository research, as well as interventions.

In response to Dr. Johnson’s awareness-raising efforts, the Cancer Prevention Committee established a Clinical Trials in Prevention Working Group last spring to develop a plan regarding the development and dissemination of clinical trials for cancer prevention research.

“The establishment of this working group and the enhanced awareness of the importance of clinical translation in prevention represent a real tribute to Dr. Johnson,” said Dean E. Brenner, MD, Cancer Prevention Committee Chair. “Dr. Johnson’s breadth and depth in the field of cancer prevention astonished me. She identified novel concepts in cancer prevention early in their development, then quietly found ways to support these concepts to drive the scientific agenda forward. She was particularly committed to our young investigators and recognized the importance of supporting them early in their careers to ensure a future generation of prevention scientists,” he added.

“Karen had a unique set of skills that really brought a different perspective to the whole question of drug development,” said Dr. Ford. “She had an enormous wealth of knowledge and intellect, and wasn’t satisfied with the easy road. Karen always probed and questioned to get to the truth.”

Article by Elyse Blye, Editorial Assistant

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