Fred Hutch scientist stalks 'the evil monster' that took her father's life

A portrait of Dr. Julie Randolph-Habecker behind a microscope
Dr. Julie Randolph-Habecker was inspired to go into science by her father, a clinical pathologist who died of cancer at age 64. Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

When I look back on my career path, I wonder what my dad would think. My dad was a clinical pathologist in Ohio and when I was young, he let me come to work with him and look at slides under the microscope and observe as he grossed in tissue. It was no surprise that I would major in biology in college and then earn a master’s in clinical chemistry. I went on to work on my doctorate in pathology at The Ohio State University when he retired. He followed my research in cytomegalovirus, or CMV, in solid-organ transplant patients and even took classes at a nearby college to learn more about molecular biology so he could fully understand my research. My dad was thrilled when I began talking to Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb at the Hutch about continuing my research on CMV in bone marrow transplant patients as a postdoctoral fellow. It seemed like I was following a clear path to become a viral immunopathologist.

On my final interview trip to Seattle, my father called me. His younger sister, my Aunt Tinka, had succumbed to lung cancer. I changed my flight and wore my interview suit to her funeral. Over the next few months my dad was having trouble with lack of energy and depression – all things we attributed to grief. Then in the fall he woke up with a pain in his side and difficulty breathing. He knew immediately that he had pneumonia. This was ironic, because he had just taught a class the day before to medical students about the clinical signs of pneumonia. He saw his doctor, got some antibiotics, and left on a monthlong trip to New England.

My parents had to cut their trip short and when they returned, we knew this was not a simple case of pneumonia. Over the next several weeks we learned he had lung cancer and that lung cancer had spread to his adrenal glands, through his intestines, and beyond. He deteriorated quickly and died a few months later. He was only 64 years old.

Ever the pathologist, he asked me to take a look at one of his cancer biopsies and let him know what it looked like. He was too sick to walk down to the lab to see it himself. As I sat across from one of my pathology instructors and looked through the two-headed microscope, I saw the most sinister, evil thing I had ever seen. It was my dad's tumor. It was a monster and it scared me. It was going to kill my dad while I watched and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Tears rolled down my face and I sobbed. I composed myself and returned to my father's hospital room. "It is a poorly differentiated, high-grade adenocarcinoma with a high mitotic rate," I said. He continued to listen to my description but never asked any questions. The tumor had silenced his nature to be an inquisitive pathologist.

After his death, I graduated with my Ph.D. and moved to Seattle. I did some very exciting work with Beverly and I was then recruited to stay at the Hutch to direct the histology and pathology shared resource. This was a deviation from my planned career path but it turned out to be a great choice. I have spent 12 exhilarating years turning Experimental Histopathology into a nationally and internationally known resource and have collaborated with amazing researchers at the Hutch on hundreds of research projects spanning all types of cancer including lung, liver, brain, colon, breast, skin, pancreatic, ovarian, leukemia and lymphoma as well as research on infectious disease and developmental biology. 

Last week I was looking some cancer slides under my microscope for an investigator. Dr. Stan Riddell's lab is looking at ways to use a patient's immune system to treat advanced cancers, and we have worked extensively with his research team and the Antibody Development resource to develop reagents and methods to identify patients who could potentially respond to this treatment. I was reviewing hundreds of lung cancers to see if they would light up with our probe and there it was – it looked just like the cancer that killed my dad. It was the same evil monster. But this time it was staining for the probe, a promising sign that suggested immunotherapy might someday be used to treat this type of cancer. This time I wasn't scared. I thought, "Look here you monster – you'd better be scared of us now because someday I’m confident that we will develop the tools to kill you."

It seems like I followed the right path because it brought me to this place. I like to think my dad is always looking through the scope with me.

Dr. Julie Randolph-Habecker is a staff scientist and director of Experimental Histopathology in Shared Resources at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

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