Beyond the Dome: Abner Notkins

Abner Notkins, M.D., Chief, Experimental Medicine Section, National Institutes of Health

Photo by: Ernie Branson; The NIH Catalyst, Vol. 20:1, January-February 2012

Published in Aequanimitas - Aequanimitas Fall 2019

Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, Abner Notkins (Marburg, 1959) didn’t have to look far for role models. His father was a physician; his mother was one of the first female real estate brokers in the city and an investor. Education, curiosity and ambition were prized.

Notkins didn’t disappoint. He excelled at school and took on leadership roles in extracurricular pursuits. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and a medical degree from New York University/Bellevue Hospital Center. 

In 1960, after completing his residency at Johns Hopkins, Notkins joined the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, as a public health services officer. That would be the start of a 60-year career studying the properties and function of primary autoantigens found in type 1 diabetes. Initially, Notkins focused on virology but quickly moved into molecular biology and genetics, immunology, autoimmune diseases and, more recently, genomics. 

Author of more than 435 scientific papers, co-editor of five books and recipient of three patents, Notkins, 86, continues his pioneering research still today at NIH. He has received numerous national and international awards for his contributions in immunology. Notkins and his wife, Susan Woodward Notkins, an architect, live in McLean, Virginia.

When did you know you would pursue a career as a physician scientist?
When I was at Yale, I took a course called “Evolution, Culture and Behavior.” It had a profound effect on my thinking. It made me realize that areas of life are not self-contained; they interact with many other areas. 

Can you think of any enduring lessons you learned as a Johns Hopkins resident that have informed your career?
Yes. It’s actually something that seemed trivial. When I was an intern, I did a tuberculin skin test on a patient with pulmonary symptoms. A couple days later, the attending physician noted a red spot on the patient’s skin and asked me what caused it. I explained that it was a TB test. The attending thought the test was a good idea but wanted to know why nothing was recorded in the patient’s chart. I told him I got too busy but planned to update it soon. The attending abruptly scolded me, saying it was irresponsible to wait a couple of days before entering clinical data into the chart. As a result of that experience, when I moved to NIH two years later and started my own research laboratory, I kept meticulous notes. I entered the data in my lab notebook as soon as I obtained it and almost never left in the evening without making sure all the paperwork was complete. I also began emphasizing to my students the importance of doing the same.

What’s it been like to serve as an NIH research scientist for six decades?
It’s been more like a hobby in which I’m totally immersed. NIH allowed me to explore my own ideas, which were mostly curiosity-driven. It also allowed me to spend most of my time in the lab, interacting with fellows and colleagues who were interesting and intellectually provocative. NIH was not always Camelot, but I can’t imagine a better place to do research. I have loved it. 

Which viruses did you focus on?
In the beginning, I focused on the role of enzymes and viruses, such as lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) virus, which we found produced a persistent infection. I continued working on other viruses such as herpes simplex, HIV and cytomegalovirus.  

What were some standout highlights — work you’re most proud of?
In the mid-1990s, we successfully isolated a gene that encoded a protein we called Islet Antigen-2 (IA-2). Looking at human sera for autoantibodies to IA-2, we found that this autoantibody often appeared years before the onset of type 1 diabetes. Now, it’s widely used to predict which children are at high risk for developing type I diabetes. Other studies in our lab led to the discovery of immune interferon in the circulation of patients with diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma. These findings played a key role in opening up the field of lymphokines in autoimmune diseases