Dr. Michael Boeckh, one of the world’s leading experts in viruses that afflict patients with compromised immune systems, will deliver the prestigious John F. Enders Lecture Oct. 5 in Washington, D.C., at IDWeek, an annual conference of doctors and researchers specializing in infectious diseases.
Boeckh is head of the Infectious Disease Sciences program at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He will talk about his career researching cytomegalovirus, or CMV, a common virus that is particularly dangerous if it becomes active in cancer patients recovering from bone marrow or blood stem cell transplants.
“IDWeek is the premier infectious diseases meeting in North America. I am thrilled and honored to be selected to give this lecture,” Boeckh said.
Enders, who died in 1985, shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1954 with two fellow researchers, Drs. Thomas Weller and Fredrick Robbins, for successfully growing the poliovirus in tissue culture. It was an achievement that helped pave the way for the development of successful vaccines against polio, measles, mumps and rubella, and for that Enders has been called “The Father of Modern Vaccines.”
Considered one of the highest honors bestowed by the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the lectureship was first awarded in 1988 to Weller, Enders’ Harvard colleague and fellow Nobel laureate. Boeckh noted that Weller is also credited with isolating and helping to name cytomegalovirus in 1957.
“That was a major milestone in CMV research,” Boeckh said. “It is a virus I have spent my career with, and this lecture will remind people of the early days of CMV, how far we have come and what we still have to do.”
Among other virus experts who have delivered the lecture since are Dr. Larry Corey, Fred Hutch president and director emeritus, in 2001; and University of Washington epidemiologist Dr. Connie Celum, in 2017.
Boeckh joined Fred Hutch in 1990 and focused on CMV because it was a lethal threat to bone marrow transplant patients. A member of the herpesvirus family, CMV infects people of all ages, and most show no symptoms of the infection. But it can cause lifelong health problems in babies born with the infection, and it poses a serious risk of fatal pneumonia to patients, like transplant recipients, who are immunocompromised.
Until doctors began treating transplant patients with the antiviral drug ganciclovir in the 1980s, CMV infection severely limited the success of bone marrow transplantation. Boeckh was a key researcher involved in the clinical trials that led to U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of a successor drug, letermovir, in 2017.
IDWeek is a five-day annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America, the HIV Medicine Association and the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society.
Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs.