NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Former Medical Officer Cooney Mourned

Dr. David A. Cooney
Retired public health officer Dr. David A. Cooney

Dr. David A. Cooney, a retired public health officer who had a 34-year career at NIH (1964-1998), died Oct. 8, 2016, from prostate cancer. He was 78 and lived in Bethesda. 

A native of Arlington and Scituate, Mass., he attended Boston College High School and received his B.A. degree in classics and pre-medical sciences from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., in 1959. He subsequently earned his M.D. from Georgetown University School of Medicine in 1963. He spent a year in San Salvador, serving as a Public Health Service fellow in the department of microbiology at the Universidad de El Salvador. 

After completing internship training in 1964 at Buffalo General Hospital in New York, he served as a senior investigator in the Laboratory of Toxicology at the National Cancer Institute from 1964 to 1969. After a 1-year postdoctoral fellowship in the department of pharmacology at Yale University School of Medicine, Cooney returned to NCI, serving as a staff scientist in the Laboratory of Toxicology from 1971 to 1976. 

In 1977, he was appointed head of the biochemistry section in the Laboratory of Biochemical Pharmacology, where he served until 1988. The last decade of his career at NCI was as a supervisory scientist in the Laboratory of Medicinal Chemistry until his retirement in 1998. 

Cooney spent most of his career studying anti-cancer and anti-HIV therapeutics. He studied the toxicology, pharmacology and biochemical pharmacology of both amino acid and nucleoside analogues. 

Cooney’s research accomplishments from the late 1960s into the early 1980s established him as a leading scientist in the fields of pharmacology and toxicology, especially relating to various families of anti-cancer drugs. 

Most notable are his work on asparagine metabolism, asparagine synthase mechanism of action and inhibition as antitumor therapy; the toxicology and antitumor activity of FDA-approved drugs such as cisplatin, bleomycin and streptozotocin; and mechanism of action and pharmacology of anti-HIV dideoxy nucleosides. 

The work on anti-HIV nucleosides in the mid-1980s saw collaborations with such NCI scientists as Drs. Samuel Broder, Robert Yarchoan and Hiroaki Mitsuya. The results of Cooney’s research from the early HIV years until his retirement in 1998 labeled him as one of the few pioneers who identified the mode of action of numerous nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors. 

Two of the drugs he studied—dideoxyiosine (didanosine, Videx, Bristol-Myers Squibb) and dideoxycytidine (Zalcitabine, Hivid, Hoffmann-La Roche)—were later approved by the FDA and used as parts of combination anti-HIV regimens. Cooney won a PHS service award in 1991 for his contributions to development of these agents.

According to coworkers, Cooney touched a lot of lives with his fierce intelligence, distinctive wit and personal charm. He was extremely generous with his time, spending countless hours mentoring the many students (who ranged in age from early high school to late college) that he continuously had as interns in his section. 

One thing that all of his friends and colleagues would agree on, “There was never a dull moment when Dr. Cooney was around.” He kept the students and postdocs excited about their work, peppering them with questions to keep them on their toes while being spontaneous and unpredictable and keeping abreast of their lives outside the lab. 

Cooney’s generosity extended to his community, where he often cared for and supported those in need who were well outside his circle of professional colleagues. 

In addition to his outstanding scientific contributions, he was a true “Renaissance man”—an accomplished musician, composer and writer. On his students’ departure, Cooney often composed tributes to them, be it songs in a variety of musical genres (from jazz to rags to ballads) or poems rich with symbolism and heartfelt emotion. 

“All of these traits made him a man who was brilliant yet selfless, frivolous yet focused, eccentric yet highly compassionate,” noted a longtime colleague. “He will be truly missed by all who knew him.”

Cooney is survived by sisters Mary Lou Manning of Rockville and Nancy Ryan of York Harbor, Maine; 19 nieces and nephews (and many more grand-nieces and nephews). Memorial contributions may be made to the NCI Gift Fund. 

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