June 2009--In his final year as a medical student, Haig H. Kazazian, Jr. ’62 became hooked on genetics when he decided to take an elective course that would be taught only once by legendary geneticist and pediatrician Barton Childs ’42. In time, Kazazian became a protégé of Childs’, who often told him that intense motivation was the key to life in the lab. “He always said, ‘You’ve got to burn to do research,’” Kazazian recalls.
The inquisitive fire that Childs lit in Kazazian resulted in revolutionary probes that have helped unravel the molecular basis of monogenic disorders, particularly hemophilia and hemoglobinopathies; more than 350 research papers, some now considered classics; the founding co-editorship of the journal Human Mutation; and numerous accolades. The latest is especially gratifying: the American Society of Human Genetics’ top honor, the William Allan Award, bestowed on Kazazian last November for his lifetime of achievements in human genetic research.
Haig Kazazian with wife Lilli
Kazazian spent 25 formative years on the faculty here before leaving to become chair of the Department of Genetics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1994. In the years that followed he focused on “jumping genes,” the retrotransposable elements in humans that can hop from one section of DNA to another. In rare cases they cause such diseases as hemophilia A, muscular dystrophy, and breast and colon cancer.
“In studying these mobile pieces of DNA, we’ve learned a lot about genome evolution,” Kazazian says. Although his lab is using gene therapy to successfully treat mice genetically engineered to have hemophilia A, whether his discoveries will lead to new gene-based medications for humans is a question Kazazian answers with a modest chuckle. “Perhaps. We’ll see. It’s basic stuff at this point.”
Now 71, Kazazian stepped down as chair of Penn’s genetics department in 2006 but is continuing his research. He’s currently on sabbatical—and spent three months earlier this year among his old colleagues at Hopkins, where his warmth and affability, coupled with his brilliance as a genetic researcher, are legendary. He attracted “a considerable number of notable and successful medical geneticists” who flourished in his Hopkins laboratory and still consider him “their mentor and a strong career supporter,” says Stylianos E. Antonarakis (fellow; faculty, pediatrics, 1981-83), now head of human genetics at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.
--Neil A. Grauer