Groft, NIH Rare Diseases Advocate, Retires
|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 ClinicalTrials.gov, 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 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, 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
“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
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
“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
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, 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
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
McCartney-Francis was predeceased by her husband and parents.