skip navigation nih record
Vol. LXVI, No. 8
April 11, 2014


previous story

next story

Dr. Stephen Groft

Dr. Calbert Laing

Dr. Albert Z. Kapikian

Dr. Nancy McCartney-Francis


Groft, NIH Rare Diseases Advocate, Retires

Dr. Stephen Groft
Dr. Stephen Groft

Throughout his career, NIH rare diseases research advocate Dr. Stephen Groft has dedicated himself to advancing research on the thousands of rare diseases and conditions that affect millions of people. A public servant for more than four decades, he is known to many as a visionary champion of rare diseases research.

Groft recently retired from his position as director of the Office of Rare Diseases Research in the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. He leaves a 30-year legacy of advancing rare diseases research and improving the lives of thousands of patients. Dr. Pamela McInnes, NCATS deputy director, will serve as acting director of the office during the search for a new ORDR director.

“The enormous growth in rare diseases research at NIH is a legacy of Steve’s leadership,” said NCATS director Dr. Christopher Austin. “Rare diseases are no longer a curiosity on the periphery of the biomedical research enterprise. They now are central to the research agenda and that is due in large part to Steve’s vision, dedication and effectiveness.”

Groft’s journey began in a personal way. “Growing up in the 1950s, I had friends and neighbors who were stricken with diseases that had few or no effective treatments,” he said. Seeing how these devastating diseases affected his small-town community remained with him throughout his career.

These personal connections led him to the Food and Drug Administration and NIH, where he worked to prioritize rare diseases research and drug development. He also served in a variety of advisory roles to national leaders, including congressional and White House representatives, to influence the national agenda on rare diseases research.

In 1986, Groft was appointed executive director of the National Commission on Orphan Diseases. The group was charged with identifying gaps in rare diseases research, patient care, regulatory issues, insurance coverage and related areas. In 1989, he joined NIH as rare diseases coordinator and special assistant to the associate director for science policy and legislation. He went on to serve in many roles at NIH, including director of ORDR.

Groft was instrumental in establishing the Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network, launching the NIH Undiagnosed Diseases Program, contributing protocols to, creating the Global Rare Diseases Patient Registry and Data Repository and forming the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center. In all of these efforts, he was an effective collaborator, bringing together NIH institutes and centers, patient advocacy groups, regulatory agencies and biopharmaceutical companies to advance the understanding and treatment of rare diseases. In addition, he worked to implement the recommendations of the National Commission on Orphan Diseases as well as legislative mandates, including the Rare Diseases Act of 2002.

He has received more than 25 honors and awards, including the Global Genes|RARE Project Henri J. Termeer Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2013, the National Organization for Rare Disorders Medal of Honor for “Vision and Pioneering Guidance” in 2013, and the Social Security Administration Commissioner’s Appreciation Award for assistance to the Compassionate Allowance Initiative in 2012.

“I often heard Steve say, ‘We’ve got to bring people together and do something,’” said Austin. “Steve accomplished an enormous amount during his long career and it is up to us now to continue his legacy of action and bring his dream of treatments for all patients with rare diseases to reality.”

CSR Immunology IRG Chief Laing Retires
By Paula Whitacre

Dr. Calbert Laing
Dr. Calbert Laing retired recently as chief of the immunology integrated review group in the Center for Scientific Review.

Dr. Calbert Laing still remembers how a headmaster at his primary school in St. Catherine, Jamaica, urged students to aim high throughout life. His message reinforced the major and constant influence of Laing’s mother on her children. (Laing is the fifth of nine siblings). She, like others in the community, expected children to be better off than their parents.

“I grew up in a very small hamlet, with no running water, electricity or paved roads,” he said. “The one thing we really knew from the time we were little was that education was important. There was no choice.”

Laing retired recently as chief of the immunology integrated review group (IRG) in the Center for Scientific Review. He oversaw the work of about 10 scientific review officers (SROs) and assisted in many special efforts in his 26-year career at NIH. For example, he helped coordinate review of applications for Bridges to the Future. He received three NIH Director’s Awards and one DHHS award, as well as several CSR awards.

“One of the most remarkable things about Cal is that he is an extremely good mentor,” said Dr. Seymour Garte, director of the Division of Physiological and Pathological Sciences. “Many of the present senior leadership, including other chiefs and division directors at CSR, came from his mentorship.”

Dr. Alexander Politis joined CSR in 1998 with Laing as his first supervisor. Politis credits Laing’s emphasis on “philosophy and principles anchored in peer review concepts and fairness” in forming his own career as an SRO and now chief of the infectious diseases and microbiology IRG. “He was so consistent, so right on the spot,” said Politis. “Since I’ve been a chief, I have trained many SROs and I go back to how Cal taught me.”

After graduating first in his class in secondary school, Laing worked as an administrator on a sugar plantation and in agricultural marketing. At age 25, he entered Tuskegee Institute (now University) as a freshman and graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in biology.

Laing earned his Ph.D. in biology with a concentration in immunology from Brown University in 1974 and conducted postdoctoral research at Mt. Sinai Medical Center. His research centered on the isolation and characterization of antigens from the mammary tumor of the mouse.

While in New York, he taught biology at the Fashion Institute of Technology. From 1977 to 1987, Laing served on the faculty of Howard University College of Medicine, rising to the rank of associate professor with tenure, and received two substantial NIH grants on his first attempts.

“I had an idea that I wanted to accomplish something else, but couldn’t define what I was looking for,” he said. When he saw an announcement for executive secretary (now SRO), he realized the NIH position was the right career change. He joined NIH in 1987 and became immunology IRG chief in 1998.

Laing plans to stay in the Washington, D.C., area, but his connections to Jamaica remain strong. He hopes to complete a memoir, recounting such adventures as traveling to a town several hours away—by himself, at age 11— to pick up a calf won through the 4H Club. An avid cook and gardener, he plans to bring to market a Jamaican jerk sauce, based on his own recipe. As his former headmaster and his beloved “Momsy” urged, Laing achieved much during his career and will continue doing so during retirement.

NIAID’s Kapikian Mourned

Dr. Albert Z. Kapikian

Dr. Albert Z. Kapikian, a pioneering virologist at NIAID who discovered norovirus and led a decades-long effort that resulted in the first licensed rotavirus vaccine, died on Feb. 24. He was 83 years old. Kapikian was former chief of the epidemiology section of NIAID’s Laboratory of Infectious Diseases (LID), a position he held for 45 years.

“Al Kapikian was a giant in the field of virology,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIAID. “His seminal basic and clinical research contributions to the study of viruses and to vaccine development have had an enormous global impact. Importantly, he was a warm-hearted, beloved and widely respected human being. His many friends at NIAID and NIH mourn the loss of their esteemed colleague.”

Kapikian often was called the father of human gastroenteritis virus research for his work on improving the understanding and prevention of viral diseases that affect the gastrointestinal tract. In 1972, he identified the first norovirus, initially called Norwalk virus. Noroviruses are now recognized as a major cause of epidemic diarrhea in adults worldwide. In 1973, Kapikian and his colleagues identified the hepatitis A virus. He also was the first scientist in the United States to detect human rotavirus, which had been discovered by others in Australia. He dedicated himself to studying this leading cause of severe diarrhea in children, which accounts for more than 400,000 deaths annually, mostly in developing countries.

“Al was my hero,” said Dr. Kathryn Zoon, director of the NIAID Division of Intramural Research. “He was a modest man who made many remarkable discoveries in virology and saved many lives through his vaccine development efforts. He will be missed by his NIAID family.”

Kapikian and his research group defined the mode of transmission of rotavirus, identified the viral proteins critical for triggering an immune response and formulated a vaccine that targeted several important rotavirus strains. These efforts ultimately led to the development, testing and approval by the Food and Drug Administration in 1998 of the first rotavirus vaccine. Subsequently, Kapikian headed the development of second-generation rotavirus vaccines that have been licensed by pharmaceutical companies in Brazil, China and India. He also contributed to ongoing efforts to improve rotavirus vaccines and expand their use in the developing world.

“Al Kapikian was a close and highly valued friend and colleague for the more than 50 years we served together in the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases,” said Dr. Robert Purcell, former chief of LID’s hepatitis viruses section. “His strengths were a keen and inquiring mind, buttressed by scrupulous honesty and respect for scientific truth. One of his greatest scientific triumphs, the development of the first rotavirus vaccine, continued to motivate him through and even after retirement, not for personal prestige or financial gain, but because of the high death rate of rotavirus-infected infants and children. To him, the control of rotavirus disease was a personal responsibility. These and his many other qualities made him a friend of all.”

Kapikian, of Armenian heritage, grew up in Brooklyn. He received his medical degree from Cornell University Medical College in 1956 and joined NIAID in 1957. His numerous accomplishments earned him the Albert B. Sabin Gold Medal, the Maurice Hilleman/Merck Award of the American Society for Microbiology and the Children’s Vaccine Initiative Pasteur Award, among many other honors.

Kapikian is survived by his wife, Catherine—whom he met at the NIH medical arts department—three sons and two grandchildren.

NIDCR Mourns McCartney-Francis

Dr. Nancy McCartney-Francis

Dr. Nancy McCartney-Francis, an immunologist at NIDCR, died Jan. 24 at age 63 in North Potomac from complications of systemic lupus erythematosus. She had served for nearly 30 years in NIDCR’s Oral Infection and Immunity Branch and for the past 2 years in the Craniofacial and Skeletal Diseases Branch.

“For those of us who had the privilege of knowing Nancy and working with her, she will be sorely missed,” said Dr. Sharon Wahl, NIDCR scientist emeritus. “In addition to her scientific achievements, Nancy will be remembered for her beautiful smile, her musical gifts, her quiet tenacity and her friendship.”

McCartney-Francis received her undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She earned a master’s degree in microbiology at the University of Texas, where she also obtained her Ph.D. in microbiology in 1980.

She served as a postdoc from 1981-1985 in the laboratory of NIAID’s Dr. Rose Mage, an expert in immunochemistry, immunogenetics and molecular immunology.

In 1985, McCartney-Francis joined what was then NIDR’s Laboratory of Immunology under the direction of Wahl; she worked there for almost 30 years. She joined the Craniofacial and Skeletal Diseases Branch when Wahl retired.

Much of McCartney-Francis’s research focused on TGF-beta and immune function, inflammation and mechanisms of host defense with special relevance to autoimmune diseases. She also served as a mentor to many—training, assisting and supporting investigators and students.

“Nancy was a superb and inspiring mentor, being patient and kind while instilling students and fellows under her watchful eye with her passion for scientific inquiry, technical expertise, excellence, honesty and—importantly—excitement for good data,” said Wahl.

McCartney-Francis received numerous honors and awards, including a special commendation from Georgetown University Medical Center for her continued participation in its M.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Intern Program. Other honors included those from the American Cancer Society, a NRSA award, a NIAID Special Achievement Award, a NIDR Scientific Director’s Award and multiple performance awards.

“Nancy was a true team player and galvanized those around her,” said Wahl. “Beyond her life in science, she had a passion for service and community and was actively involved in her church where she was a remarkably talented organist and a source of vision and action.” She also loved art, craft fairs and all forms of music.

McCartney-Francis was predeceased by her husband and parents.

back to top of page