A Chair of Greatness: Don Coffey Honored

Don Coffey is a teacher, a storyteller, a scientist, a scholar, and a Renaissance man who makes the term seem dismally inadequate. He is a fine talker, but an even better listener. He loves his family, is loyal to his friends, is funny, and he's interested in everything. Nothing in the universe is too arcane for Don Coffey, because everything connects, the very big and the incredibly small —it's all part of the wonderful puzzle being worked on, all the time, in his brain. Scientifically speaking, hes a catalyst. He inspires. He charges the air with the electric excitement of ideas. Spend five minutes with Don Coffey, maybe in his office packed with some of the gadgets that fascinate him, or maybe in the halls of Marburg, and you'll likely think,"Wow, that's the smartest guy I've ever met." You may swear your own IQ has risen by a few points, just by osmosis. If you are told that some people have compared Coffey to another famous American scientist, storyteller and scholar, Benjamin Franklin, you may take a half-second to digest this, and then you may think, "I wonder if Ben Franklin was half as bright."

Donald S. Coffey, Ph.D., who is The Catherine Iola and J. Smith Michael Distinguished Professor of Urology, served as Director of the Research Laboratories in the Department of Urology for 30 years, from 1974 to 2004. On October 10, 2006, the Brady Urological Institute dedicated the Donald S.Coffey Professorship in Urology. Its first occupant will be, appropriately, the Coffey trained and -inspired scientist Robert Getzenberg, whose work is featured on the cover of this issue, and who succeeds Coffey as the Brady's Director of Research.

Spend five minutes with Don
Coffey, and you'll likely think,
"Wow, that's the smartest guy I’ve
ever met." You may swear your
own IQ has risen by a few points,
just by osmosis.

"It's very fitting that the first recipient of the Coffey chair should be Rob Getzenberg," says Alan W. Partin, M.D., Ph.D., Director of Urology— and a world-renowned, Coffey-inspired scientist himself. "Like Don Coffey, he is an innovative scientist and teacher, whose exciting work is giving us new ways to think about and tackle prostate cancer."

Look at Coffey's appointments at Hopkins, and see how many departments claim him: He's a professor of urology, oncology, pathology, pharmacology and molecular sciences. He's also a member of the Principal Professional Staff at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory. "It's safe to say that the Brady would not be leading the world in understanding the science of prostate cancer without Don Coffey," says Patrick C. Walsh, M.D., University Distinguished Service Professor of Urology. "We've worked together for 32 years," most of which time Walsh was the Director of Urology,"and we agreed that the best thing we could do was to get the brightest young people we could, believe in them, teach them all that we could, and then give them the chance to flourish."

Among Coffey's many contributions to urologic research is his groundbreaking work on the "nuclear matrix" which he identified, isolated, and named — of cells."The matrix provides the three-dimensional structure of the nucleus,"Partin explains, "and organizes the higher order structure of DNA. The nuclear matrix protein composition is tissue-specific, and changes with the development of cancer." These discoveries, Walsh adds, grew out of Coffey's "brilliant ability to simplify. As a nonpathologist, he was able to simplify the pathology of cancer down to one rule: The nucleus is irregular. He then set out to find what makes a nucleus round, and in the process, discovered the nuclear matrix." Coffey's discoveries, according to Getzenberg, "have implications that we're still learning about, and they've set us on whole new courses of scientific exploration."

But, Coffey's colleagues agree, even this work isn't his most lasting legacy. "Don is an inspiring teacher," says Walsh, "and the Pied Piper of prostate cancer research. He has attracted more outstanding investigators into the field than anyone who ever lived."

Nothing in the universe is too
arcane for Coffey, because everything
connects, the very big and the
incredibly small. It’s all part of the
wonderful puzzle being worked
on, all the time, in his brain.

One of those is William Isaacs, Ph.D., whose groundbreaking work on the genetics of prostate cancer established conclusive proof that the disease runs in families. His latest research is featured on Page 15 of this issue. "Don has an irresistible way of inspiring students to discover," he says."He cuts through all the details to reveal the key question, and does it in such a way that you cant help but want to be part of the answer."

Another world-class, Coffey-trained investigator is William G. Nelson, M.D., Ph.D., Because of Coffeys unique ability to communicate, often by using homespun analogies," Nelson believes, he can explain complex biomedical research to just about anyone. "Watching Don testify in front of Congress on behalf of cancer research, you could almost see the 'now I get it' light bulbs turning on. For an engineer who undertook Ph.D. training in biochemistry, Don has a great sense of cancer not only as disordered biochemistry, but as a disease that threatens life and happiness. I think that he's had as much influence on the thinking and training of great physicians and surgeons as he's had on basic science researchers."

A few other highlights from Coffey's great career: A graduate of the University of East Tennessee, he received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1964. He is Past-President of the American Association for Cancer Research, and also of the Society for Basic Urologic Research. He served as a member of the National Prostatic Cancer Program of the National Cancer Institute for 19 years, and served as its national chairperson from 1984 to 1988. He has received the Robert Edwards Award from The Tenovus Institute; both the Fuller Award and Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Urological Association; the highest research award given by the Society of International Urology; and a 2001 American Cancer Society Distinguished Service Award. He is an Honorary Member of Alpha Omega Alpha, the recipient of two Merit Awards from the National Institutes of Health, and the author of more than 250 research publications.


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