Internationally renowned virologist; past president of national cancer and international virology associations; National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine member; North Carolina Award for Science winner; revered mentor to faculty, fellows, medical and graduate students; Berryhill Lecturer; proud grandfather; dedicated squash and tennis player; and recent honoree at his eightieth birthday.
Add to that almost 50 years of continuous NIH research funding for his lab and serving as principal investigator of the longest-running National Cancer Institute postdoctoral fellowship training programs in the U.S. Most important of all is founding the Lineberger Cancer Center in 1975.
Joseph S. Pagano, MD, isn’t slowing down. Ask him what his lab is doing and he’ll tell you about new work to study at the molecular level how the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) can immortalize human lymphocytes and transform them into tumor cells. EBV causes infectious mononucleosis and several types of cancer, including B-cell lymphomas and nasopharyngeal carcinoma.
Dr. Pagano was among the first to uncover molecular links between a tumor virus and cancer. After the discovery of EBV in Burkitt lymphoma, common in African children, Dr. Pagano used innovative techniques to show how the virus persisted not only in Burkitt lymphoma, but also in nasopharyngeal carcinoma, common in South China and its émigrés elsewhere in the world.
In his current work he studies how EBV can cause B-cell lymphomas in immunosuppressed organ-transplant recipients. “With the Lishan Su lab, we are conducting a controlled trial in ‘humanized’ mice whose lymphatic system is made to exactly simulate that of humans. We’re trying to determine if a novel combination of antiviral and anti-tumor drugs might prevent or slow development of these lethal EBV lymphomas. The unique mice created by Dr. Lishan Su here at UNC Lineberger make it possible to carry out controlled trials which will yield results quickly, and if successful, can move directly to human clinical trials.”
As director of the UNC Lineberger postdoctoral training program, Dr. Pagano vigorously advocates for training of fellows based on the interdisciplinary research milieu pioneered at UNC by Lineberger. “Fellows need exposure to ideas outside those of the labs of their mentors, however excellent, and even beyond cancer. We create an exciting environment for this approach through the fellows’ own seminar series, the annual Postdoc-Faculty Day, now largely organized by our Postdoc Committee and its enthusiastic young leaders, and an endowment to support prizes for best papers every year. “
Dr. Nancy Raab-Traub, Sarah Kenan Distinguished Professor of Microbiology and Immunology and a former postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Pagano’s lab, says, “One of the great aspects of research at UNC is the interactive and collaborative environment and this is a reflection of his leadership. He has always looked for ways for people to work together, combine their knowledge and get more accomplished.”
Dr. Arnold Levine, Dr. Pagano’s longtime colleague and friend, professor emeritus at the Simons Center for Systems Biology at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, says in birthday wishes to Dr. Pagano: “Joe, it is time for you and me to return to Switzerland to be sabbatical postdocs again. Like old times we will enjoy the Swiss-French food and culture. Then we can think of a good experiment to do. Here’s to the next 80 years.”
Dr. Stuart Bondurant, dean emeritus of the UNC School of Medicine, says, “There was a time when, in the midst of a distinguished scientific career, the development of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center had little more substance than a gleam in Joe Pagano’s eye. Now Joe would be the first to say that the singular reality and promise of today’s UNC Lineberger is tribute to the intelligence, skills and commitment of many people over many years. But Joe Pagano’s vision set the stage and his magnetic intellect, his pristine standards, his unexcelled commitment to further cancer research, science, the University and the careers of his colleagues, have defined the genome of this Center. Beyond Chapel Hill, his wisdom and judgment have helped to shape Cancer Centers and programs across this nation and around the planet. Joe, we all hope that you savor these days of celebration and that they are followed by even more opportunities that you cannot resist.”