Skip to main content
UNC Lineberger’s Ronald Swanstrom, PhD.

Ronald Swanstrom, PhD, the Charles Postelle Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics and co-director of the UNC Center For AIDS Research, has been named the 2020 recipient of the Hyman L. Battle Distinguished Cancer Research Award.

Swanstrom, a University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center member, was recognized for his expertise in the field of retroviruses and viral-associated cancers and for helping establish the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a major hub for tumor virology and human retroviruses, including HIV.

The Battle Distinguished Cancer Research Award is traditionally presented during a reception held at UNC Lineberger, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it imprudent to hold the event.

The award was established in 2007 by the Battle Foundation of Rocky Mount to recognize exceptional cancer research at UNC-Chapel Hill. The honor includes a $25,000 prize and is a permanent endowment held by the UNC Health Foundation.

“Ron’s remarkable grasp of virology and sequencing technology when it was nascent put UNC and UNC Lineberger at the center of human retrovirology research at the beginning of the AIDS pandemic,” said Shelley Earp, MD, UNC Lineberger director and Lineberger Professor of Cancer Research. “HIV/AIDS research under Ron’s leadership laid the foundation for a remarkable UNC program that has helped inform our understanding of retroviruses on virtually every human disease, including cancer predisposition.”

Swanstrom is internationally renowned in the field of retroviruses. His early research focused on the study of RNA tumor viruses and pivoted to HIV in the early days of AIDS research to help uncover the mechanisms behind viral infection, life cycle and transmission. His research also has investigated the cancer risks associated with HIV, Hepatitis C (HCV) and other viruses.

Swanstrom has authored more than 250 scientific papers and publications. He is an associate editor of PLoS Pathogens and on the editorial boards for Pathogens and Immunity and the Journal of Virology, where he served as editor 2000-2009.

Swanstrom earned his doctorate from the University of California, Irvine, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California San Francisco under the direction of J. Michael Bishop, MD, and Harold Varmus, MD. (Bishop and Varmus would later be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1989 for their discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes.) Swanstrom joined the UNC faculty as an assistant professor and was appointed a full professor in Biochemistry and Biophysics and Microbiology and Immunology in 1994. He was awarded the Charles P. Postelle Jr. Distinguished Professorship in Biochemistry in 2014.

“At first glance, the study of HIV and HCV might not be considered cancer research. But as Ron knows only too well, infection with these two viruses creates a substantial risk of malignancies,” Bishop said. “While working with us, Ron investigated various aspects of retroviral genome structure and replication. With the advent of the AIDS epidemic and the discovery of HIV, however, Ron shifted an increasing amount of his effort to the study of that virus. He evolved into a major player in the field, making important contributions to our understanding of HIV genome structure, replicative cycle, pathogenesis, immunogenicity and drug resistance. This work has been consistently creative, rigorous and important.”

“It is wonderful to see Ron selected for this award. He has dedicated his career to the understanding of RNA tumor viruses, he has made many seminal contributions to the field, and he has also been a major force behind the establishment and success of the UNC Center for AIDS Research,” said UNC Lineberger’s Brian Strahl, PhD, professor and interim chair of the UNC School of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. “In addition to all of his amazing achievements, Ron is also an incredible mentor and is extremely giving with his time. Ron truly exemplifies everything this award was meant to honor.”