By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun
11:56 PM EST, January 13, 2012
Dr. Constance A. "Connie" Griffin, an internationally known pancreatic cancer researcher who led the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center's Cytogenetics Core and was director of the Pathology Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory, died Jan. 8 of pancreatic cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The Ruxton resident was 60.
"The irony is that Connie passed away from the very disease that she studied," said Dr. Ralph H. Hruban, director of the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
"She was the most down-to-earth and caring individual that you'd ever meet. She was a prominent scientist and physician, and you would never know it from meeting her," said Dr. Hruban.
"She was not a self-promoter. She cared about others and was extremely modest," he said. "Connie was unaffected by her prominence."
The daughter of a pediatrician and a registered nurse, Dr. Griffin was born in Evansville, Ind., and raised in Akron, Ohio.
After graduating in 1969 from Our Lady of the Elms School in Akron, Dr. Griffin earned a bachelor's degree in 1973 in biology from the University of Chicago.
In 1977, she earned her medical degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and was a resident in internal medicine at Indiana University Medical Center from 1977 to 1980.
From 1981 to 1984, Dr. Griffin was a fellow in medical oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she was also an assistant in oncology.
She was an assistant in medicine at Hopkins from 1980 to 1984, and was a postdoctoral fellow in cytogenetics in the department of pathology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
Dr. Griffin was an assistant professor of oncology and medicine at Hopkins from 1986 to 1992, and was director of the cytogenetic laboratory in the medical school from 1986 to 1994.
Since 1990, she had been an affiliated member of the Center for Medical Genetics at the Hopkins medical school, and from 1992 to 2008 was an associate professor of oncology. She had been an associate professor of medicine for the past 19 years.
From 1994 to 2001, she was director of the molecular diagnostics laboratory in the Hopkins department of pathology, and since 1994 had been director of the cytogenetics laboratory in the pathology department.
For the last 13 years, Dr. Griffin had been director of the Cancer Risk Assessment Program in the oncology department at the Hopkins medical school, and since 2005 served as the interim director of the pathology department's molecular pathology division.
Since 2008, she had been a professor of pathology and oncology at the medical school.
Dr. Griffin's primary research interest was pancreatic cancer and applying genetic techniques and studying chromosomes in cancer cells.
She also pursued diagnosing and classifying tumors that had a predisposition to certain types of cancers and genetic defects.
Dr. Nancy E. Davidson, an internationally recognized expert in breast cancer research who had been director of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center's Breast Cancer Program, worked with Dr. Griffin at Hopkins.
"She was a wonderful medical oncologist and became interested in the genetics of cancer and moved her focus into that area. She was wonderful with patient care and dealing with families," said Dr. Davidson.
"She was an absolutely fabulous scientist, wife and mother. Her death is a great loss for Hopkins and our field," she said.
In his eulogy, Dr. Hruban recalled the founding group, of which Dr. Griffin was a member, that had assembled in the early 1990s to "battle pancreatic cancer" through the study of chromosomes, which led to seminal studies.
"Today, much of the genome cancer sequencing work that one hears about in the news is based on this early work," he said in the eulogy.
"But Connie's impact as a scientist was much broader than just pancreatic cancer. While I knew her as the pancreatic cancer expert, others knew her for her work in pediatric tumors, and others in her work in sarcomas," said Dr. Hruban.
He said that she had published more than 25 papers in the journal Genes, Chromosomes and Cancer.
Dr. Hruban said that Dr. Griffin played a major role in the cancer genetics counseling program at Hopkins.
"She had counseled families who had lost multiple family members to cancer and were worried about getting cancer themselves. This work required a deep knowledge of cancer genetics, combined with enormous empathy and caring," he said.
Dr. Hruban said that after Dr. Griffin was diagnosed with the same cancer her patients were fighting, she never mentioned her own struggle.
"And in the time between her diagnosis and death, she made a remarkable discovery," said Dr. Hruban. "She studied the sequences of small RNA molecules and found that changes in these molecules could cause familial cancer."
A month before her death, Dr. Griffin presented her discovery to the Goldman family, which financially supports the pancreatic cancer research center at Hopkins.
"Her face shined when she presented her discovery. Some of us knew of her diagnosis, but she never mentioned it," said Dr. Hruban. "What an act of bravery."
Dr. Griffin was an avid bird watcher and enjoyed doing crafts. She also liked to travel and attend concerts. She played the piano and hammered dulcimer.
Dr. Griffin was an active member of Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, where services were held Jan. 12.
Surviving are her husband of 35 years, Dr. Allan C. Spradling, director of the department of embryology at the Carnegie Institute of Washington and adjunct professor of molecular biology and genetics at Hopkins; two daughters, Emily Spradling of Towson and Katherine Spradling of Ruxton; a brother, Gregory Griffin of Brunswick, Ohio; and a sister, Paula Davis of Ithaca, N.Y.
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