It is with much sorrow that we announce the passing of Albert de la Chapelle, MD, PhD, a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Cancer Biology and Genetics at Ohio State who played a key role in developing and leading the university’s human cancer genetics program to great prominence after being recruited here from the University of Helsinki in 1997.
Dr. de la Chapelle, 87, died Thursday of natural causes, just nine months after the March 2020 passing of his wife Clara D. Bloomfield, MD, also a Distinguished University Professor who for many years served as cancer scholar and senior adviser to Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James). Dr. de la Chapelle was in the Cancer Biology Program at the OSUCCC – James and formerly co-led that program when it was known as Molecular Biology and Cancer Genetics.
With Dr. de la Chapelle’s passing, the world has lost another of its most renowned medical scientists, a pioneer in the field of human cancer genetics whose work, which spanned more than half a century and included over 800 publications in prestigious scientific journals, led to important seminal discoveries about the molecular and genetic nature of cancer, setting the stage for the development of innovative treatments.
Considered to be one of the most prominent scientists in Finland when he was recruited to Ohio State, Dr. de la Chapelle received numerous accolades and awards during his long career, including his election to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (now the National Academy of Medicine) and a lifetime achievement award from the Collaborative Group of the Americas on Inherited Colorectal Cancer (CGA-ICC), which works to improve understanding of inherited colorectal cancer and the clinical management of affected families. The CGA president at that time described Dr. de la Chapelle as “truly a giant in the field of genetics and specifically in colorectal cancer genetics” whose discoveries “paved the way for identification, diagnosis and cancer prevention in patients with mismatch repair mutations.”
After earning his MD and PhD from the University of Helsinki (some 80 miles from his boyhood home in that country), Dr. de la Chapelle joined the faculty there and quickly rose to professor and chair of medical genetics, as well as physician-in-chief for clinical genetics at the University Hospital in Helsinki. In those capacities, his achievements escalated.
His earliest work on the analysis of human X and Y sex-determining chromosomes identified the region of the Y chromosome responsible for maleness. He co-initiated the International Workshops on Chromosomes in Leukemia, which led to a series of discoveries in the field. With the use of linkage disequilibrium as a tool to locate genes responsible for hereditary diseases in isolated populations, his laboratory discovered the region of chromosomes responsible for 14 human diseases. For seven of those, he found the gene responsible for the disease.
One of Dr. de la Chapelle’s most important achievements in cancer genetics was helping to identify and map four genes (mismatch repair genes) that cause Lynch syndrome (LS), an inherited disorder that makes certain families susceptible to colorectal cancer. By discerning that this susceptibility results from a damaged cell’s inability to repair its DNA, he discovered a new cancer-causing mechanism.
After arriving at Ohio State, Dr. de la Chapelle not only led the human cancer genetics program for the OSUCCC – James but also mentored numerous students and continued his own groundbreaking basic research on molecular causes of cancer. His laboratory focus was on the mapping, cloning and characterization of high- and low-penetrance genes for cancer predisposition.
In addition, he was known for his compassionate approach to clinical research, always showing an interest in patients seen by his staff in clinic. He emphasized applying laboratory discoveries to the development of diagnostic procedures and treatments, including a test used to screen people for LS and studies that led to recommendations for the universal screening of patients with colorectal cancer for LS so that, if they tested positive, their relatives could be notified and screened for the syndrome as well. Dr. de la Chapelle’s work helped lead to the Ohio Colorectal Cancer Prevention Initiative, a statewide initiative that includes 50 hospitals throughout Ohio and was funded in part by Pelotonia, the annual cycling event that raises money for cancer research at Ohio State.
He also made significant contributions in the areas of papillary thyroid cancer (PTC), acute myeloid leukemia and endometrial (uterine) cancer. Some of his later work at Ohio State included the study of inherited gene mutations that predispose to PTC, including non-coding RNA genes.
Dr. de la Chapelle held the Leonard J. Immke Jr. and Charlotte L. Immke Chair in Cancer Research at Ohio State. A few of his many awards include honorary doctorates at the Universities of Uppsala and Oulu, membership in the Academy of Finland and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and the William Allan Award of the American Society of Human Genetics (2002).
Outside of work, Dr. de la Chapelle was a consummate outdoorsman and a collector of silver and other Finnish art. He enjoyed traveling, cooking and dining with his wife and partner Dr. Bloomfield. Fellows and other trainees who worked with this special couple often boasted of the hospitality the two showed on holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. Dr. de la Chapelle, although private, always brought forth a friendly smile and willingness to provide help or advice to those who worked with and for him.
The OSUCCC – James is fortunate to have benefited for nearly a quarter century from Dr. de la Chapelle’s expertise and skills as a researcher, educator, administrator and friend to all who had the privilege of working with him or being mentored by him. His recruitment to Ohio State more than 23 years ago along with Dr. Bloomfield, who arrived at the same time, was a momentous occasion for our cancer program. Their influence on all that we do will be forever remembered in our continuing journey toward a cancer-free world.
Raphael E. Pollock, MD, PhD, FACS
The Ohio State University
Comprehensive Cancer Center
William B. Farrar, MD
Chief Executive Officer
James Cancer Hospital and
Solove Research Institute