“Having experienced the tremendous aftermath of WWII as a boy, I felt that Berlin became too small, and I wanted to see the world,” said Volker Diehl, MD, of the University of Cologne in Cologne, Germany. After starting a fellowship in the Virology Department at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, Dr. Diehl’s world began to expand and evolve in ways he had never imagined.
Forty years later, Dr. Diehl is receiving the 2010 Wallace H. Coulter Award for Lifetime Achievement in Hematology for his pioneering research on Hodgkin lymphoma. This award, named for Wallace Henry Coulter, a prolific inventor who made important contributions to hematology and to ASH, is bestowed on an individual who has demonstrated a lifetime commitment and made outstanding contributions to hematology, and who has made a significant impact on education, research, and/or practice. Dr. Diehl has devoted his scientific life to the understanding and treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma, and his career is a great example of excellence in translational and clinical research.
“This award is the greatest honor a non-U.S. hematologist can receive as a member of the global community of clinician-scientists striving for victories in the fight against hematologic cancers and other blood diseases,” Dr. Diehl said. “It is also an example for young researchers: never give up in spite of the many stones and thorns on the way up the mountain.”
Dr. Diehl’s many accomplishments include the discovery of the causative role of the Epstein-Barr virus (EPV) in infectious mononucleosis and the study of its association with Hodgkin lymphoma. He also cultured the first notoriously fragile Hodgkin cell lines and led the development of BEACOPP, a chemotherapy regimen for the treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma.
Dr. Diehl’s career has taken many twists and turns. In medical school, he wanted to be a pediatrician. After making several breakthroughs in clinical virology, Dr. Diehl spent time in Africa in conjunction with the American Cancer Society and ultimately became a medical oncologist. In addition, Dr. Diehl founded the German Hodgkin Lymphoma Study Group in 1978, one of the largest Hodgkin study groups in the world.
“I continue to be a ‘bridge-person’ between the lab and the clinic. I always try to apply the bench results in a clinical setting for the benefit of the patient,” Dr. Diehl said.
The opportunity to help save the lives of those with Hodgkin lymphoma and the influence of colleagues and mentors have also altered the course of Dr. Diehl’s career. Werner Henle, Harald zur Hausen, Henry Kaplan, Saul Rosenberg, Tom Frei, and others directed his early-career decisions. “It has become not only my experimental playground, but also the clinical field where I can help to increase the cure rates of patients with advanced stages of Hodgkin lymphoma and be able to save the lives of many thousands of patients.”
Despite great success, Dr. Diehl has faced many challenges. The list is long and varied — from trying to transfer EBV to umbilical cord blood cells with the aim of initiating continuous growth in in vitro short-living cells, to finding the causative role of EBV for human diseases and elucidating the pathogenetic link between infectious mononucleosis (IM) and Hodgkin lymphoma, to designing a chemotherapeutic regimen that is highly effective but less toxic in the short term and long term.
These challenges, while sometimes difficult to face, have left him with many cherished memories. The first was a late-night discovery made in the lab. “One night in October 1966, in the laboratory of the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, I discovered that small umbilical cord blood cells had started to clump, forming small, swimming colonies,” Dr. Diehl said. “I called Werner Henle in the middle of the night and told him about this exciting world premiere!”
Dr. Diehl’s other favorite memory is when the first Reed-Sternberg cells grew in culture from a young woman who was bound to die with massive pleural effusions. “When I reported to her about the in vitro growth of her cells, she said to me: ‘Dr. Diehl, I cannot do anything else but thank you. Maybe one day you will become famous because of my cells!’”
Outside of hematology, Dr. Diehl enjoys playing the violin in a quartet with his daughter and two grandchildren as well as playing golf on a beautiful mountain course in the Alps in Carinthia.