Japan commends

Ingrid Skjong

Robert McKinnell pondered how receiving the Prince Hitachi Prize for Comparative Oncology in Tokyo, Japan, would highlight his career. Comfortably nestled in his first-class seat on the flight home last Friday, he reflected on the event and came to a conclusion.
“I said to myself, ‘Gee whiz, I don’t think anyone will top this,'” said McKinnell, a University cell biologist. “It was something that was extraordinarily appreciated by me.”
The prestigious Hitachi prize, which recognizes influential figures in the field of cancer research, was awarded to McKinnell May 27. As a pioneer in his area of research, McKinnell showed that herpes viruses can be linked to certain types of cancer — particularly a specific type often suffered by AIDS patients.
During his five-day visit, he received the award from Japan’s Prince Hitachi in a special ceremony. He also spoke at the Tokyo Cancer Institute in 1958 about the ground-breaking research he began at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.
At that time, the idea of a cancer-causing virus received little credence. But his work filled in gaps and took the theory further.
“Right now we are the primary lab in the world working on this particular frog tumor,” McKinnell said.
Kris Klos, McKinnell’s laboratory assistant since 1995, works closely with his research. She said one of the most valuable things McKinnell taught her is how to blend the practical and academic aspects of science. Having her mentor receive such a highly touted honor says volumes about his level of expertise, she added.
“It kind of drives to the heart of what he’s working on,” Klos said.
McKinnell said he hopes his work contributes two major theories to cancer research: the possibility that herpes viruses might be an important factor in cancer research, and that the cellular offspring of cancer cells might develop normally.
John Harshbarger, director of the Registry of Tumors in Lower Animals at the George Washington University Medical Center, was the first recipient of the Hitachi prize in 1996. Harshbarger recommended McKinnell, a friend for 30 years, for this year’s award.
“I consider him a giant in that field,” Harshbarger said. “His work speaks for itself.”
Although McKinnell has visited Japan on several occasions, including several invitations by the imperial family, he conceded that this trip was a particularly exciting honor.
“The Japanese imperial family has had a long history of doing things other than just sitting in their imperial palace,” McKinnell said.
Prince Hitachi, who McKinnell has known since 1980, is himself an active cancer researcher whose chosen specimen is fish. The 62-year-old prince received an honorary doctorate in science from George Washington University in September recognizing his research contributions.
In addition to his award, McKinnell received a commemorative medal, a calligraphied citation and a vase emblazoned with the imperial family crest. He said he plans to proudly wear his medal at the College of Biological Sciences graduation ceremony later this month.
McKinnell, who is partly retired, will continue to “retire gently” for another year until he officially departs next May. But his dedication has not waned, and Klos said he remains as passionate about his work now as he was 40 years ago.
“He’s supposed to be part-time but he’s always here,” Klos said. “I don’t see any change in his workload.”
McKinnell’s motivation is simple. He said even if a cure isn’t found for another 100 years, the search for an answer is still worthwhile.
“I enjoy doing it because cancer to me is a perplexing problem of cell biology, and anybody who contributes even in a modest way has done something that he or she can be proud of,” he said.