Desforges Chair

For this recipient, it's like coming home

In a ceremony that was by turns highly technical and suffused with deep feeling, Dr. Philip N. Tsichlis was inaugurated as the Jane F. Desforges, M.D., Professor of Hematology and Oncology at the School of Medicine. For Tsichlis, a nationally recognized expert in molecular oncology who knew medical Dean ad interim Nicolaos E. Madias from their time together as students at Athens University School of Medicine in the late 1960s and who had been a hematology fellow in medicine and research and an assistant professor of medicine working under Desforges at Tufts-New England Medical Center from 1974 to 1980, the honor carried layers of meaning that no one present could fail to appreciate.

From left, Dean ad interim Nicolaos E. Madias, Dr. Jane F. Desforges and Dr. Philip N. Tsichlis. © J.D. Sloan

Tsichlis was appointed executive director of the Molecular Oncology Research Institute at Tufts-New England Medical Center (Tufts-NEMC) in 2002. He is also a professor of oncology and of medicine at the medical school. Prior to his appointment last year, Tsichlis was director of basic science and a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology at the Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Desforges, a Distinguished Professor Emerita at Tufts Medical School, has been a practicing physician, teacher, writer, researcher and associate editor of the New England Journal of Medicine throughout her 60-year career. She is a hematologist whose work has focused on leukemia, lymphoma and sickle cell disease. In 2001, Desforges received the Massachusetts Medical Society's Lifetime Achievement Award.

In his opening remarks at the ceremony this spring, Madias cited three reasons he felt "especially elated" at the presentation of the chair to his longtime friend. First, he said, Desforges is a legendary figure at Tufts. Second, the chair in her name was endowed by her colleagues and friends as a tribute to her passion for teaching. Third, Tsichlis had been a student of Desforges and had gone on to distinguish himself as "a shareholder of her intellectual heritage."

Imagine that
Madias ended in a more personal vein by marveling at the distance he and Tsichlis had traversed since their medical school days, when they were classmates and roommates. "In all our wildest dreams of youth, we never came close to imagining this," said Madias.

Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow spoke next, calling the occasion "a special day for the university, for the medical school and for Tufts-NEMC." Listening to Madias talk about all the personal and professional connections that lay beneath the surface of the event, the president said he was reminded of the Yiddish expression besheret, which means that something was meant to be. "Welcome back to Tufts, welcome back home," Bacow told Tsichlis. "This is where you belong, and it's wonderful to have you."

Madias made an official presentation of the chair to Tufts University Trustee Jane Hirsh, a member of the medical school Board of Overseers, who accepted it on behalf of the university.

Tsichlis took the spotlight and used his time first to note his gratitude—calling his receipt of the chair "an honor that is difficult to describe in words"—and then to trace the course of his research over the past 30 years in a PowerPoint presentation titled "Cancer Genes: Friends and Foes." Tsichlis began by singling out Dr. Robert Schwartz, professor of medicine, and John Coffin, professor of molecular biology and microbiology, as two mentors who had been influential early in his training at Tufts in the mid- and late 1970s.

The mentors
"Even now, when I want to do something, I can hear Bob's voice behind me saying, 'Why do you want to do that?' He taught me to think in science," Tsichlis said of Schwartz. He called the three years he spent working with Coffin "truly exhilarating." A ripple of appreciative laughter ran through the audience when, in sequence, Tsichlis called up vintage images of the two men, both sporting more and darker hair.

Tsichlis' work has explored the molecular determinants of oncogenic transformation. He began his talk by discussing the role of viruses in tumor formation, explaining that "viruses cause tumors in animals by inserting their genome into the cellular DNA." Some genes cause tumors, he noted, while other genes do just the opposite by acting to suppress tumor induction. After presenting a chart showing the interconnections of oncoproteins, Tsichlis described how his research team discovered AKT, a gene that plays an important role in human cancer. In addition, he discussed how his team demonstrated that the protein encoded by AKT is under the control of the Pl-3 kinase, an enzyme that plays a central role in the regulation of cell function, and he explained the biological and medical importance of this discovery.

"What is the significance of AKT for human disease?" he asked the audience. "We now know that AKT can cause cancer. In addition, we know that it may play a role in a number of other diseases. Because of its central signaling role, it is universally accepted today that AKT may be critical for maintaining health and for causing disease. Because of its importance, one may claim that AKT is in the center of the universe, so to speak."

The honoree then discussed his work on another oncogene (Tpl2), also discovered by his research team. Inactivation of this gene seems to protect from such ailments as arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, he said. Therefore, drugs that inhibit its activity may be beneficial for the treatment of these diseases and perhaps other inflammatory syndromes. Toward the end of his presentation, Tsichlis displayed a chart of the intercellular pathway system he had been discussing, remarking, "Although it appears complex, it is hopelessly incomplete." Tsichlis sounded like a man who knew what he was going to be doing tomorrow morning in the lab.

The ceremony ended it as it had begun, lit with poetry and emotion. Tsichlis summoned the spirit of the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy ("Keep Ithaca always in your mind / Arriving there is what we are destined for") before thanking a roster of family, friends and associates, right down to the villagers of his hometown on the Mediterranean island of Crete, for their steadfast love and support. He concluded with the namesake of the chair he now occupies, Dr. Jane Desforges, saying simply, "She has been a great teacher, a great mentor and a great friend."