By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun
September 7, 2011
Dr. Kenneth P. Johnson, former chairman of the department of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and an internationally known expert on multiple sclerosis who developed new treatments for the disease, died Saturday of cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.
The Lutherville resident was 79.
"Ken was a visionary in the field of multiple sclerosis and where it was going and developing new therapies. He will be remembered as a very kind person who was wonderful with his multiple sclerosis patients to which he was totally devoted to curing," said Dr. Christopher T. Bever, a longtime colleague who is a professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and chief of the neurology service at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Baltimore.
"To his colleagues, he was a thoughtful and caring mentor," said Dr. Bever, who is also director of the Veterans Administration Multiple Sclerosis Center of Excellence, East.
The son of a mechanical engineer and a registered nurse, Dr. Johnson was born and raised in Jamestown, N.Y., where he graduated from Jamestown High School in 1950.
He earned a bachelor's degree in 1955 from the now-defunct Upsala College in East Orange, N.J. While there, he met and fell in love with a fellow student, Jacquelyn Johnson, whom he married the following year.
Dr. Johnson earned his medical degree in 1959 from Jefferson University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, and completed an internship at Buffalo General Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y.
He began his residency in neurology at the hospital, which was interrupted in 1961 when he left to serve with the Navy at the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Va.
Dr. Johnson completed his residency at University Hospital in 1965 in Cleveland, and later a neurological residency at Case Western Reserve University. He was also a fellow in neurovirology, studying how viruses affected the nervous system.
He held faculty positions at Case Western Reserve before leaving in 1974 to take a position at the University of California, San Francisco. There, he conducted multiple sclerosis research and also worked at the Veterans Administration Hospital.
During the 1970s, Dr. Johnson joined in a collaborative effort with Dr. Hillel Panitch, who shared the belief that multiple sclerosis was a viral disease. The two conducted one of the first clinical trials using interferon, which interferes with the ability of the viruses to reproduce.
Dr. Johnson came to the University of Maryland in 1981, when he was appointed chairman of the department of neurology and was joined by Dr. Panitch, and the two men continued their research with beta interferon.
"Beta interferon seems to suppress the underlying cause of multiple sclerosis — errant attacks by the immune system on nerve fibers of the brain and spinal cord," reported The Baltimore Sun in 1993. "The attacks destroy myelin, the protective covering around nerve fibers. This causes a confusing 'cross talk' between fibers, and slows the signals that control such functions as movement, balance, feeling and sight."
The FDA approved Betaseron in 1993, and Dr. Johnson continued his work by conducting research on a compound called Copolymer 1. He oversaw the national clinical trial with 11 other medical centers and in 1996, the FDA approved the drug which is now called Copaxone.
In his 2010 book, "The Remarkable Story of Copaxone: An approach to the Treatment of Multiple Sclerosis," Dr. Johnson wrote that multiple sclerosis is the "most common crippling neurologic disease of young adults" with more than "400,000 living in the United States, and the worldwide population exceeds 1.2. million."
Copaxone, he wrote, "has become recognized as the most prescribed treatment for Ms."
"Anxiety and despair for hundreds of thousands of people with Ms has been replaced by hope and reassurance that the disease, while not curable, can now be managed for many patients by the first treatment shown by research to improve the lifetime course with Ms," he wrote.
When Dr. Johnson joined the University of Maryland, the neurology department was small, with 10 faculty members. By the time of his retirement in 2001, it had grown to 35 and in the process gained an international reputation.
Dr. Johnson was the founder of the Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis and was also head of the Maryland Center for MS, which he had also founded.
The author of more than 175 scientific articles published in worldwide medical journals, Dr. Johnson had been awarded the Dystel Prize by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the American Academy of Neurology for his pioneering work and research and developing new treatments for the disorder.
He enjoyed traveling and camping.
He was a member of Christ Lutheran Church, 701 S. Charles St., where a memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sept. 17.
In addition to his wife, a retired educator, Dr. Johnson is survived by three sons, Thomas M. Johnson of Baltimore, Peter B. Johnson of Huntsville, Ala., and Douglas C. Johnson of McLean, Va.; a daughter, Diane E. Johnson of Lutherville; a sister, Joanne Erickson of Gales Ferry, Conn.; and two grandchildren.
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