NCI’s Hildesheim Retires
Dr. Allan Hildesheim, senior investigator and former chief of the Infections and Immunoepidemiology Branch (IIB), retired from NCI’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics after 33 years of service at the end of 2020.
As the inaugural chief of IIB, Hildesheim built a multidisciplinary research program focused on the interplay of infection, immunity and inflammation on cancer risk and helped translate those findings into important advances in cancer prevention, risk stratification and screening. As an investigator, he devoted his career to the study of host and viral factors involved in the pathogenesis of DNA virus-related tumors.
Hildesheim began his career at NCI in 1987 as a predoctoral fellow in the precursor to DCEG, the Division of Cancer Etiology. He earned his Ph.D. in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1991 and completed his doctoral dissertation studying the interactions of herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV2) and human papillomavirus (HPV) in cervical cancer with Dr. Louise Brinton in the Invasive Cervical Cancer Study in Latin America. Through this work, Hildesheim established numerous collaborations that would lay the groundwork for his subsequent studies in nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) and cervical cancer.
Over the course of his career, he built a comprehensive research program dedicated to understanding the causes of NPC, a cancer associated with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), and its early detection.
He conducted large studies of both sporadic and familial NPC in Taiwan examining the role of viral, environmental and genetic factors, resulting in the identification of novel gene candidates, many of which had biological functions that could modulate responses to EBV infection. These studies created an extensive biospecimen collection, providing a rich resource for interdisciplinary molecular epidemiology evaluations. He extended this work to a large 30,000-person NPC screening program in Southern China to evaluate the impact of EBV-based markers and clinical management procedures for the early detection of NPC.
Hildesheim was pivotal in establishing large-scale international cohort efforts that required extensive cross-discipline and cross-cultural collaborations. His contributions to natural history studies of HPV and cervical cancer in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, revealed insights into the performance of then-novel HPV and cytologic screening techniques. He and collaborators designed and launched the HPV Vaccine Trial in Costa Rica, which was the only publicly funded HPV vaccine trial initiated prior to vaccine licensure.
More recently, his collaborations have extended to the Chile Biliary Longitudinal Study, which explores the etiology and natural history of gallbladder dysplasia and biliary cancer and seeks to identify risk stratification and prevention strategies. His seminal contributions have produced nearly 400 peer-reviewed publications.
“As founding chief of IIB, Allan guided the branch with his scientific vision and passion,” said Dr. Eric Engels, chief of IIB. “His expertise in designing molecular epidemiology studies has advanced the understanding of virus-related cancers and his commitment to international research collaborations, in regions of the world where the burden of these cancers is high, has made a lasting impact on public health.”
Over the last three decades, Hildesheim has mentored numerous fellows, staff scientists and junior investigators who have gone on to successful careers at NCI and other institutions. His dedication to mentorship was recognized with an NCI Outstanding Mentor Award. “Those who had the opportunity to be mentored by Allan became better scientists through his guidance and generosity,” said Dr. Aimée Kreimer, senior investigator in IIB.
In addition to his ambitious research program, Hildesheim served on many intramural and extramural committees and advisory boards. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the HHS Secretary’s Award for Distinguished Service for groundbreaking research in human papillomavirus leading to the development of a vaccine for the prevention of cervical cancer.