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Scientist who turned body's defense against cancer recognized as top federal employee

Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg
Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg

A scientist with the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda who pioneered methods of turning the body's immune system against cancer has been named the federal Employee of the Year.

The Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes careers in government, honored Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg, a senior researcher at the institute. Rosenberg said his work illustrates why the National Institutes of Health, of which the cancer center is a part, is the "crown jewel of the U.S. Government."

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"The NIH marries basic science and clinical application better than any institution," he said.

The Federal Employee of the Year Medal is the most prestigious among the annual Service to America Medals, or Sammies, awarded by the partnership. The medals honor workers who might otherwise go unheralded.

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"Too often, the vital work of our nation's public servants goes unnoted and unappreciated," said Max Stier, the partnership's president.

Two other federal workers in Maryland also received awards.

Ron Ross of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg won the Homeland Security and Law Enforcement Medal for his work on government computer security.

Hyun Soon Lillehoj won a Career Achievement Award for her food safety research at the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville.

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Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the NIH, attended the award ceremony Wednesday and praised Rosenberg in a blog post the next morning.

"It was a thrill to hear Steve Rosenberg's name called last night for inclusion in this honor roll of outstanding public service," Collins wrote. "Steve has spent four decades at NCI, developing life-saving treatments for cancer patients."

Rosenberg, the chief of the surgery branch at the Center for Cancer Research in Bethesda, has pioneered cancer treatments that use the body's immune system to fight the disease and methods to implant foreign genetic material into humans to better take up the fight.

The techniques are important for tackling melanoma and lymphoma, for which surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are not always effective.

Rosenberg said when he started out there were no examples of the immune system reacting against cancer, but he thought it could be the basis for a treatment.

"It was an intuition based on a lot of reading and a lot of study," Rosenberg said.

While the body recognizes cancer cells as invaders, he said, its reaction is fairly weak. The treatments he helped devise find the cells that are on the attack and multiply their numbers, supplementing the body's "wisdom in recognizing foreign substances."

The research took time to pay off. Rosenberg said his first 66 patients died, but in 1985 the 67th was cured of melanoma. Rosenberg said he saw her just a few months ago.

Lee Greenberger, the chief scientist at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, said Rosenberg's work has been groundbreaking.

"In some ways he is sort of the father of this concept," he said.

There have been difficulties. Doctors have had to figure out how to make the treatments more effective and deal with side effects. Greenberger said the approach can lead the immune system to become too aggressive, sending patients to intensive care.

In more recent years, researchers have been looking at ways to make the approach — known as immunotherapy — even more effective by genetically engineering the body's defenses. Greenberger said doctors are looking at priming the immune system to seek out tumors.

"There's tremendous excitement," Greenberger said.

Rosenberg has been chief of the surgery branch at the cancer research center since 1974. He said he has no thought of retiring because of the great promise in the years to come.

"I feel like I'm just getting started," he said. "I expect some really important advances to come in the near future."

Rosenberg leads a team of about 30 people. He tells them they have to be passionate about their work and focused on it at all times. When they're waiting at a red light, he said, their minds should be on cancer.

But in recent weeks, he said, he's had some trouble concentrating himself. He has received two other awards recently that were also accompanied by dinner events.

"Talk about not being distracted," he said.

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