Many notable people passed away in 2016, from prominent musicians, actors, and authors, to athletes, politicians, and scientists. The world of cancer immunology and immunotherapy also felt the sting of loss with the passing of Georg Klein, M.D., D.Sc., on December 10, 2016.
Klein, 91, was professor emeritus at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, and a member of both the Royal Swedish Academy of Science and the National Academy of Sciences (USA). He also served for many years as a member of CRI’s Scientific Advisory Council, and with funding from CRI, trained generations of scientists in basic and tumor immunology.
After receiving his Ph.D. in the 1950s, Klein―along with his wife Eva―made fundamental contributions to the biological sciences, and helped establish the field of modern tumor immunology. Among his major accomplishments are: discovering natural killer (NK) cells; showing that a patient’s immune cells can indeed recognize and react against the patient’s own tumor cells; uncovering the link between viruses, specifically the Epstein-Barr virus, and certain cancers; and finding that physical rearrangement (translocation) of chromosomes could activate cancer-causing genes within them. Both Georg and Eva received the Cancer Research Institute’s William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic and Tumor Immunology in 1978.
Many of the past advances he made have enabled today’s immunotherapy approaches. For instance, his insights regarding the viral origins and influence on some cancers were translated into FDA-approved immunotherapies such as T-Vec, which uses a modified herpes virus that takes the immune system’s ability to recognize viruses and turns it against cancer. More broadly, his immunology work opened the doors through which modern immunotherapy pioneers walked to change the landscape of medicine and cancer.
In addition to the many patients whose lives have been saved because of his breakthroughs, those in immunology and immunotherapy and we here at the Cancer Research Institute are also grateful for, and will deeply miss, Georg Klein.
As he helped build the Tumor Biology Department at the Karolinska Institutet into one of the world’s finest, he mentored many scientists and was particularly supportive of young scientists from the former Soviet Union. CRI is proud to have played a supportive role throughout Klein’s career: throughout the five decades that we directly funded his research, we have also supported 183 research fellows―with the help of the Concern Foundation―whom Klein sponsored in his lab and with whom he made many important discoveries.
Klein also earned acclaim outside of science as an author “with both a philosophical-humanistic and a popular-scientific thrust.” Having narrowly escaped the Holocaust’s concentration camps before embarking on his remarkable scientific career, he developed a profound respect for the value of life and felt obliged to pass his wisdom on to others: “It’s the time we’re given that makes life so valuable. The great human tragedy is that people seek the meaning of life with a capital M. Personally, I’m happy with my small meanings: the people I love and my work.”
The fruits of Georg Klein’s work―which are prominent in labs and hospitals all across the globe―will undoubtedly live on and continue to provide a firm foundation for future progress.