NCI’s Gerhard Remembered
Dr. Daniela Gerhard, director of NCI’s Office of Cancer Genomics, passed away suddenly on June 25. She spent more than 17 years committed to developing and executing large-scale genomics research programs for NCI.
“Daniela was a special talent,” said Dr. Louis Staudt, an NCI scientific director. “She lived for her work and was one of the best scientific administrators I’ve ever come across.”
Gerhard earned her undergraduate degree from Barnard College and her Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Cornell University. She continued her molecular genetics research as a postdoc in the laboratory of Dr. David Hausman at MIT. She then became an assistant professor at the department of genetics at Washington University, St. Louis, before coming to NIH in 2004.
Gerhard had a hand in several major programs at NCI. She was a charter member of the influential cancer genomic characterization program known as “The Cancer Genome Atlas,” for which she implemented patient sample collection and data processing pipelines.
She then led the counterpart program for childhood cancers known as TARGET, which is still ongoing and has provided valuable insights into the pathogenesis and therapeutic vulnerabilities of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, neuroblastoma and other devastating cancers. She had an immense knowledge of childhood cancers and steadfast dedication to improving the lives of these young patients.
Some of Gerhard’s recent work focused on precision oncology—translating lab discoveries into new treatments that can be used in the clinic. She led a network of extramural investigators who used gene knockout technologies, high-throughput drug screening and other cutting-edge technologies to discover and exploit vulnerabilities of specific cancers. The discoveries in this program have already led to many clinical trials.
These are merely a few of Gerhard’s many scientific contributions spanning the breadth of cancer genomics research.
Over the past several years, she initiated and led an ambitious charge to create and distribute a thousand new cancer cell lines, developed directly from patient biopsies using recent advances in cell culture technology. These new models will help researchers more accurately assess how patients will respond to various treatments.
As much as Gerhard was committed to her work, she also cared deeply for her many colleagues. Her team looked forward to chocolates, fruits or homemade sweets to start off group meetings. A cake was her group’s annual tradition to celebrate International Women’s Day. She was also known to routinely text colleagues to confirm if they caught their daily shuttle or inquire about a loved one’s health.
Perhaps she will be best remembered and admired for her indomitable work ethic. “It is true Dr. Gerhard expected the absolute best from us and also herself,” explains Dr. Subhashini Jagu, a health science administrator at NCI. “She never stopped encouraging us to become stronger and more independent so that we could become scientific leaders of her caliber.”
Gerhard’s family requested that any donations in her memory be sent to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (https://www.stjude.org/donate/donate-to-st-jude.html?sc_icid=home-btn-donate-now) or to her alma mater Barnard College (https://giving.barnard.edu/s/1133/campaign/start.aspx).