It is with a heavy heart that I write this post. I recently learned the terrible news that we have lost a distinguished scientist, Dr. Paula Marie Pitha-Rowe, Professor of Oncology, Molecular Biology and Genetics at the Johns Hopkins University Department of Biology and the School of Medicine. She was also, until recently, my wife Sujayita’s postdoctoral research mentor, and an immensely knowledgeable, well-informed, fun and compassionate person. She was a sprightly 77.
The Mentor and Friend
My connection to Paula was through Sujayita; Paula mentored her research at the Department of Biology in the Homewood Campus of the university. Very seldom have I seen such a true gem of a mentor, and a friend, too. Sujayita finished her stint in Paula’s lab as the project rounded up and Paula’s retirement date drew nearer, but their relationship continued to be strong. Paula’s sympathetic ear and compassionate wisdom have seen Sujayita through some professional tough-times. For me, getting to meet Paula was always a joy – whether in her lab, or at her high-rise apartment on Charles Street. I met Paula for the last time in December last year, when we took her out to dinner. We had a lovely chat as usual (she would always show interest in my work), and there was absolutely no indication of any impending illness. In fact, she remarked that she was well rid of the nagging illness she usually got every winter.
The completely unexpected news of her death broke our hearts that morning. There would be no more Christmas cookie baking at her apartment, an activity in which all lab members past and present were invited. There would be no one for Sujayita to excitedly run to after reading or watching a crime thriller and recommend, get recommendations, or exchange notes with. Paula was the one who got us acquainted with (and hooked on to) the brilliant British detective drama series, Foyle’s war, and the British adaptation of the Swedish crime drama, Wallander. In turn, we introduced her to the books and TV series featuring Detective Jack Frost, created by another British author.
Sujayita once gave me a curiously sweet glimpse into Paula’s nature. When she worked for Paula, they would make it a point to coordinate their breaks in the workday and take lunch together. Even if it were at the rather Spartan, metal-bodied tables outside, interspersed throughout the Homewood campus, Paula would carry a nice little table cloth and spread it on the table before commencing with lunch. Because it was elegant. As elegant in life, as in science – it was that charming elegance which marked Paula’s approach to everything, including the complex scientific puzzles that she solved with élan.
The Scientist and Academic
Born in the Czech Republic, Paula’s professional career spanned continents. Awarded a PhD in Biochemistry from the Czech Academy of Sciences at Prague in 1964, Paula subsequently trained at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry (Prague), National Research Council (Canada), Curie Institute (Paris), and the Salk Institute (California) – eventually joining the faculty of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1971. She attained full professorship at Hopkins – the 13th woman faculty member at the School of Medicine to do so – in 1985.
Paula was the first full-time basic research scientist recruited to then-nascent oncology program at Hopkins, and it was her work in part, that made way for the evolution of the program into the premier Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer center at Hopkins. At the cancer center, and later, at the Department of Biology, Paula pioneered basic research towards the understanding of inflammatory cellular immune responses to viruses and other infectious agents, and how viruses may contribute to cancer. This work led to her international acclaim and honors in this field; she received the 1996 Milstein Award for excellence in interferon and cytokine research, and the 2005 G J Mendel Honorary Medal for Merit in Biological Sciences, and was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2011.
Paula’s research accomplishments are nothing short of stellar. Her group demonstrated that type I interferons (Interferon α and β; cellular messenger proteins released by the innate immune defence in response to retroviral infection) stimulated hundreds of genes with special functions, eventually inhibiting HIV-1 replication, and preventing the formation and release of functional, infective virus particles (a.k.a. “virions”) of HIV-1. Her laboratory was the first to construct inducible lentiviral vectors – virus particles created with a priori restricted ability to replicate; these virus particles would be able to make copies of themselves only inside specific host cells, and are therefore thought of as the perfect Trojan horses to deliver bits of genetic material specially designed to impede the replication and expression of another virus in the same host cell. Paula was one of the two named inventors in a patent around this technology with immense potential for gene therapy of HIV and various types of cancer; this vector made it to clinical trials of gene therapy of HIV, and phase II results announced in 2010 showed promise for prolonged control of viremia. Not only that, the same technology has now been successfully used to modify T-cells of leukemia patients for cellular therapy which has shown astounding promise.
Paula has also significantly contributed towards the research on interferon regulatory factors (IRF), a group of proteins which are activated in response to various stimuli, including viral infection, and lead to the product of type I interferons and activation of interferon-stimulated genes (ISG) – all inter-related parts of the innate immune defence mechanism against viral infections and cancer. Paula truly advanced the field of IRF research, her laboratory having pioneered the discovery and cloning of IRF-3, the cloning and functional characterization of IRF-5, and the demonstration of the critical immune defence roles of IRF-3, 5, and 7. Paula elucidated the wide spectrum of IRF-5’s biological role, spanning inflammation, mediation between innate and adaptive immunity, as well as certain autoimmune disorders, such as lupus.
Paula led the identification of the interferon induced gene and the corresponding protein, ISG-15, which biochemically inhibits the assembly and release of HIV-1 virions. Her work suggested ISG-15 as a novel approach towards the antiviral therapy of drug-resistant HIV-1, as well as of other viruses, such as Ebola and Influenza.
The Human Being
Paula’s immediate and extended family spans two nations, the United States and the Czech Republic – siblings and numerous nieces and nephews whom she would visit regularly. She used to say she stayed back in Baltimore because of her second husband; what I came to know only much later was that this husband was none other than Dr. Wallace Prescott Rowe, another celebrated virologist and cancer researcher, the discoverer of adenovirus in 1953, and the chief of the laboratory of viral diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases until his death in 1983. Talk about a power couple!
Paula was close to her children – a son, Ian Pitha-Rowe, a physician scientist, and a daughter, Ulla Pitha, an investment management professional. She was especially pleased that Ian, currently an assistant professor of Ophthalmology at the Wilmer Eye Institute of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, chose to go into scientific research, and she even authored scientific publications with him. Ian’s wife, Heather Sateia, is an Internal Medicine physician at Hopkins, and Paula absolutely doted upon their children, her two grandchildren, and loved spending time babysitting them.
Though she was aware of a heart condition, Paula never ceased to radiate life, touching the lives of many others, and transforming them by her warmth, kindness and compassion. She was still in the middle of everything – she taught her biology class at the University that day, she spoke to Ian on the phone and made babysitting plans and everything – right up until the time fate struck cruelly, in form of a type of cardiac arrest. As Ian said, “Although it was too soon, it was exactly the way that she wanted things to end.”
That is the only solace Sujayita and I are left with. Rest in peace, Paula. We will always miss you.
Update: The Baltimore Sun has an obituary, which quoted from this post.