Local Obituaries

Dr. Eckhard Podack, University of Miami cancer researcher, dies at 72

Dr. Eckhard Podack, a distinguished professor at Sylvester Cancer Comprehensive Center, worked on lung cancer vaccines and chaired the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
Dr. Eckhard Podack, a distinguished professor at Sylvester Cancer Comprehensive Center, worked on lung cancer vaccines and chaired the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Miami Herald file

When Dr. Eckhard Podack grew up in his native Germany he dreamed of 19th century explorers like James Grant, who discovered swaths of the Australian coastline; Abraham Bristow, who discovered the Auckland Islands; and Alexander Gordon Laing, the first European to reach Timbuktu.

Podack, who became a lung cancer researcher and distinguished professor at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, was enthralled by these discoveries and how these men filled in many areas of the world map.

In 2004, as Podack developed a vaccine that he hoped could halt the growth of lung cancer, he told the Miami Herald, “I was a romantic. I wanted to cure cancer — to fill in that white area of our map.”

The man born Feb. 26, 1943, in the East Prussian city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), would never stop trying to fill the map, his wife Kristin said.

Podack, 72, who lived with Kristin in Coconut Grove, died of respiratory issues at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, on Oct. 8. He was under treatment for constrictive pericarditis, a heart condition.

“His motivation was always about the thrill of discovery and learning about science and what hasn’t been known before,” Kristin Podack said. “He never stayed in one path and if he ran into a wall or an impasse he found another way around it. That was true throughout his life — whether he was fixing something in the house or traveling from one place to the other. He always was looking for another way.”

Some of what he found proved profound.

In the early 1990s, Podack, who earned his medical degree from Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1968, created an antibody to seek out and attach to a receptor on lymphoma cells. He sold the technology to Seattle Genetics, which used it to develop a therapy to target cancer cells and leave healthy tissue intact.

Podack, whose doctoral thesis on biochemistry at Germany’s Georg-August University was honored by the German Diabetes Society in 1973, also discovered Perforin-1 and Perforin-2. These antibacterial proteins help the body’s immune system defend against infectious diseases.

Podack’s work was based on injecting genetically altered cancer cells into patients who already had the disease. He theorized that the injected cells would activate killer cells and attack the lung cancer.

That lung cancer vaccine, using gp-96, a heat shock protein, was used to treat non-small cell lung cancer, which accounts for 85 percent of all lung cancers. The gp-96 vaccine was also developed for treating solid tumors.

What a loss to Eckhard’s family, his colleagues, his department, the school, and basically to all of humanity from his unfinished work.

Dr. Karl Magleby, chair of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“Our loss is substantial, not only of a friend whom we adored and shared wonderful memories with, but also of a colleague whose talent is akin to those who have received the Nobel Prize. The work on immune therapies for cancer, and the killing of microorganisms with the Perforin family of proteins that he discovered, will have a long-lasting impact on our fellow humans,” said Dr. Pascal J. Goldschmidt, dean of the UM medical school and CEO of the University of Miami Health System.

In 2008, the UM’s medical school and Seed-One Ventures, a Miami Beach firm, formed Heat Biologics to work on those technologies Podack developed while he chaired the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Podack, characteristically, remained unfazed. “I’m not a businessman. I’m a scientist. I want to see what works and how it works,” he told the Herald.

A lack of ego was typical of Podack, said Kristin, his wife of 26 years. “His interest in life was the pursuit of the unknown with no ego attached. He was so generous, always acknowledging others for the work that they did.”

Dr. Natasha Strbo, a Croatian student whom he mentored, is to deliver a slide presentation Thursday to a class of undergrads at UM inspired by Eckhard’s work on Perforin-2. She shared the news with Podack’s wife in an email:

“You know that for all Croatians and Serbians, Nikola Tesla is not only a national pride, he symbolizes a unifying force and inspiration for all nations in the name of science. Having Eckhard for my mentor for [the] past 15 years, I know Eckhard was just like Tesla: a true visionary far ahead of his contemporaries in the field of scientific development.”

In addition to his wife, Eckhard is survived by his children Verena and Eilika Podack; his siblings Karin Gerald, Dietrich Podack, Helga Petri-Basaran and Dr. Sigrid Firjahn-Andersch. Donations in Eckhard’s memory can be made to Partners in Health or Florida Grand Opera, designated for main stage productions. A celebration of life is in the planning stages.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen