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Profile–Dr. John C. Reed

Shedding Southern Security–Scientist John Reed Worked His Way Out of Backbreaking Labor and Into Groundbreaking Research

ar removed from his posh suburban life in Rancho Santa Fe, one of the country’s top scientists is reminiscent of simple beginnings: cottonfields and hogs.

Dr. John C. Reed, scientific director of the Burnham Institute, a nonprofit center formerly known as the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation, still prides himself in having contributed to the family’s bank, then working his way through medical school doing hard labor.

“I had done everything from pick cotton, pick tomatoes, castrate hogs, shovel manure out of barns and bale hay,” says Reed, 41.

But that world is far removed from his average 14-hour day, which often is filled with back-to-back meetings aimed at breaking new ground in the fight against cancer, AIDS, and heart disease, and other disorders.

Reed resembles more the avid runner who recently participated in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon than a uniformed coal miner , another one of his blue-collar summer jobs.

And yet, his parents’ philosophy that hard work and education are the ticket to success never failed him.

The son of a displaced New York businessman and a housewife, Reed and his three younger siblings grew up following their father, who set up clothing factories in rural areas across Southern states.

Like other Southern kids, Reed spent his early years training bird dogs and fishing for bass.

But he knew it wouldn’t last.

Early Calling

Reed decided in seventh grade that he’d become a doctor. He called it an intrinsic desire.

It comes as no surprise that Reed, after graduating from Robert E. Lee High School in 1976, went on to pursue a biochemical degree at the University of Virginia.

A high-achiever who wouldn’t accept anything less than ranking at the top of his class, Reed was intense about his studies. He also became a member of the student council and set up a program for pre-med students to volunteer at a local hospital.

And, thanks to his brothers at the Chi Phi fraternity, he would occasionally trade his scientific journals for parties and pranks.

For the dean who’s still wondering who nailed that stuffed moosehead on his front door , the research ends at the Burnham Institute.

But Reed, who has been described as high-strung, never lost sight of his goal: To attend medical school.

In 1980, with a biochemistry undergraduate degree at hand, Reed transferred to the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school.

He was accepted into the medical scientist-training program, a six- to seven-year program for doctors who want to pursue careers in academic medicine doing both research and clinical work, Reed says.

Reed adds he discovered quickly his heart belonged in research, not the bedside.

Preparing For Research Role

An advanced course in molecular cloning at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory headquartered in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., where Reed learned how to clone genes, removed all doubts: “I knew then I wanted to apply technology to medical problems,” Reed says.

His mentor, Dr. Carlo Croce, now director of the Kimmel Cancer Center in Philadelphia, remembers Reed well.

“He has always been hyperactive,” Croce says laughingly about Reed. “He always worked tremendously hard and I am happy to say many years afterwards, he didn’t stop going.”

Among their biggest contributions from their work at the Wistar Institute, a small research institute in Philadelphia, is the identification of a cancer gene.

It would become one of the most important cancer genes, Croce says.

In 1983, Reed made another important discovery , his wife Martha.

On that night in the dance club, Reed and “Muffy,” as she is known, sought to celebrate their birthdays , Reed’s birthday is Oct. 11; Muffy’s is Oct. 13.

About 4 a.m. and after several drinks, Reed remembers his future wife doubting he would remember her phone number.

“I’m a medical student; I can memorize anything,” he contended.

In 1986, the year Reed graduated from medical school, they were married.

Reed took Croce’s advice and completed a three-year residency program in pathology at the University of Pennsylvania.

As a pathologist, Reed was in charge of all the laboratory testing in the hospital. It was a perfect deal, allowing him to diagnose diseases and still focus on research, such as identifying tumor genes.

Following his post-doctoral training at the Wistar Institute in 1990, Reed returned to the University of Pennsylvania as an associate professor.

In 1992, Reed accepted an offer to pursue research at The Burnham Institute.

Reed says he always had a desire to move West, having been raised in the deep South, then spending his early career years in the Northeast.

He admits his entrance into The Burnham Institute was more a fluke, than fulfilling a burning desire. He first heard about the institute through an ad placed in a scientific journal. His reply landed him an invite for a presentation.

“I thought I’d come out here and give a presentation for practice,” Reed says.

But, his original perception changed once he met with the staff.

He attributes his now eight-year stretch at the institute to the high-caliber science and the profile of the staff.

The institute has 450 employees and an annual budget of $35 million, 75 percent of which comes from grants.


Reed now recruits and builds teams of three to eight members to work on projects.

The institute focuses on seven existing programs and three new programs, he says.

The existing programs cover cell adhesion, neurobiology, glycobiology, gene regulation, oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes, degenerative disease and cell death research.

New research areas to be tackled include aging, molecular anatomy of the cell and bio-informatics.

Reed, who has been ranked the most highly cited researcher in the world for his 1998-99 published papers, according to ScienceWatch, continues to be intrigued by cell death.

Apoptosis, or programmed cell death, a relatively young field, is one of the hottest research areas, he says.

“Right now it’s estimated 70 percent of all the major illnesses for which we don’t have good therapies are attributed to cell suicide pathways,” Reed says.

For instance, he explains, people either don’t have enough cell death, such as the case with cancer, or too much cell death, which can lead to stroke and is involved in certain neurodegenerative diseases.

Programmed to achieve, Reed isn’t likely to deter from his successful path.

That’s when he’s not busy running the trails at the North Torrey Pines Park or across the pavement of his Rancho Santa Fe neighborhood.

On the weekends, though, Reed reserves time for his three sons, Hunter, 12; Tyler, 9; and Courtland, 6.

They, like typical suburban kids, relish mostly all-American sports, such as baseball, he says.

But Reed doesn’t mind. Unlike their father, they won’t have to wait until adulthood to experience exotic foods, high fashion, and mingle with people of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

On the flipside, they may never experience the pleasures of growing up in lush green fields near bass-filled lakes.


Title: Scientific director of the Burnham Institute

Birthplace: New York City

Residence: Rancho Santa Fe

Hobbies: Running

Family: Wife, Muffy; and three sons, Hunter, Tyler, Courtland.


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