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Fox Chase Cancer Center Virologist and Past Scientific Director Will Be Honored as Distinguished Scientists by Hepatitis B Foundation at Michener Museum Gala

PHILADELPHIA (September 28, 1999) -- Dr. William S. Mason of Williamstown, N.J., a virologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, and Dr. Jesse W. Summers, a former scientific director at Fox Chase and now a member of the University of New Mexico faculty, will share the Distinguished Scientist Award of the Hepatitis B Foundation.

The nonprofit volunteer foundation, based in Doylestown, Pa., is dedicated to finding a cure for chronic hepatitis B. The presentation will take place Saturday, October 2 at the Foundation's annual recognition gala, to be held at the James Michener Museum in Doylestown.

The Hepatitis B Foundation is recognizing Mason and Summers for their discovery of how the hepatitis B virus reproduces itself-fundamental information necessary to understand how the virus causes primary liver cancer and other fatal liver diseases such as cirrhosis. People who develop chronic hepatitis B infection as infants often develop fatal liver cancer before age 40.

"In a collaborative research effort, these men shook the scientific world with one of the most significant discoveries in the field of hepatitis virology since the discovery of the hepatitis B virus, and caused scientific books to be rewritten," The Foundation said. "As individual researchers and as a dynamic team, Dr. William Mason and Dr. Jesse Summers have made a profound impact on hepatitis B research and embody all of the qualities that distinguish truly outstanding scientists."

The hepatitis B virus was discovered at Fox Chase in 1967 by a research team led by Dr. Baruch S. Blumberg, who won the 1976 Nobel Prize in medicine for this work. During the early 1970s, Summers' research clarified the unusual structure of the viral DNA.

Summers also developed a new approach for isolating related viruses, discovering the woodchuck hepatitis virus in 1978 and the duck hepatitis virus in 1979. His work with the woodchuck virus provided the first experimental proof that chronic hepatitis B infection causes primary liver cancer.

Mason and Summers collaborated during the 1980s to develop the duck hepatitis model, demonstrating that the hepatitis B family of viruses replicates by reverse transcription. This is the same method used by the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS-although HIV carries its genes in RNA and hepatitis viruses use DNA for their genetic material. Summers went on to set up the first tissue-culture systems for hepatitis viruses.

For his seminal work at Fox Chase, Summers was a co-winner of the 1987 Charles S. Mott Prize for Cancer Research from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation and also won the American Cancer Society's 1987 Medal of Honor. After his move to New Mexico in 1988, Summers built on this research and demonstrated the molecular mechanisms that permit hepatitis viruses to maintain chronic infections without damaging their host cells. Most recently, he has concentrated on the nature and dynamics of the animal infections.

Mason's Fox Chase laboratory has focused on how liver cells interact with the hepatitis B virus during chronic infection. His research is designed to understand why some individuals maintain a chronic infection and to devise treatment protocols that will eliminate the virus. In addition, he is identifying the sequence of changes in the liver that lead to cancer of hepatocytes, the major cell type in the liver.

"Most people infected with hepatitis B as adults clear the infection after a few months," Mason explained. "However, about 10 percent of infected adults and most people infected as children will carry the virus throughout their lifetime. These individuals will develop chronic liver disease and about 10 percent will eventually develop liver cancer."

Currently he is studying the effects of combining antiviral drug treatment with immunotherapy to stimulate a host's defenses against infected liver cells and provide more effective therapy. Treatment agents used in his research include lamivudine, which has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for chronic hepatitis B carriers. In some patients, it is completely effective, but others become resistant to the drug and new strains of the virus emerge.

He also wants to determine whether eliminating a person's chronic infection will reduce his risk of liver cancer or whether the liver damage already sustained is too great. Evidence suggests that clearing an infection early, before extensive liver damage occurs, might substantially reduce the risk of getting liver cancer-or at least delay its onset for decades.

"To treat those with chronic infection, one possibility lies in developing agents that could inhibit reproduction of the hepatitis B virus for long periods," Mason said. "Another possibility is blocking the cell-to-cell spread of infection, so new uninfected liver cells that replace the dying cells will remain uninfected."

Born in Paterson, N.J., Mason received his bachelor's degree in mathematics from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., in 1965 and his Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of Chicago in 1971. Mason came to Fox Chase as a research associate in 1973 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship in microbiology at the University of Southern California School of Medicine in Los Angeles. He was promoted to tenured member of the basic science division in 1983 and became a senior member (the equivalent of a full professor at a university) in 1991.

Summers, born in Houston, Texas, earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1963 from Rice University in Houston and his Ph.D. in microbiology in 1968 from the University of Texas at Austin. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute in San Diego, Calif., he joined Fox Chase in 1971. Promoted to senior member of the basic science division in 1982, he served as scientific director from 1983 to 1986.

The coming honor will be the second consecutive Distinguished Scientist Award presented to a Fox Chase staff member by the Hepatitis B Foundation. Dr. W. Thomas London of Wyncote, Pa., a physician and scientist who was part of the Fox Chase team that originally discovered the hepatitis B virus, received the 1998 award. A senior member of the Center's population science division, London conducts epidemiological research focusing on the patterns of hepatitis B and liver cancer in countries where they are prevalent, such as the People's Republic of China and Senegal, West Africa.

London also developed the Fox Chase Liver Cancer Prevention Program, which has become a model for anti-hepatitis B efforts around the world. The Fox Chase program screens people at risk of hepatitis B, monitors people who are chronically infected, in order to detect any tumors at the earliest stage, and vaccinates uninfected family members to prevent them from becoming carriers. The program began in the early 1980s after successful clinical trials of the first hepatitis B vaccine, invented at Fox Chase by Blumberg and Dr. Irving Millman. In addition to Fox Chase Cancer Center, the program is available at St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, Pa., a member of Fox Chase Network.

Fox Chase Cancer Center is one of 36 National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers. Its activities include basic and clinical research; prevention, detection and treatment of cancer; and community outreach programs.

Fox Chase Cancer Center, part of the Temple University Health System, is one of the leading cancer research and treatment centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence four consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach.  For more information, call 1-888-FOX CHASE or (1-888-369-2427).

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