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ASH Announces the 2023 Honorific Award Recipients

(WASHINGTON, June 28, 2023) — The American Society of Hematology (ASH) will recognize exemplary hematologists who have made significant contributions to the field with the Honorific Awards at the 2023 ASH Annual Meeting and Exposition in December. This year’s recipients are a group of pioneering scientists, innovative clinicians, and selfless mentors who have advanced hematology through vital contributions, from revolutionary achievements in stem cell transplantation and the discovery of novel blood cancer biomarkers, to dedicated mentorship of underrepresented minority trainees to bolster a strong and diverse hematology workforce.

“Congratulations to this year’s recipients of the ASH Honorific Awards. Each of these individuals has left a lasting mark on our field. Their unwavering dedication to the betterment of patient care, research, and education in classical and malignant hematology has significantly enhanced the lives of those afflicted with blood disorders,” said 2023 ASH President, Robert A. Brodsky, MD, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “ASH values the opportunity to acknowledge visionary leaders who are tirelessly advancing the field of hematology.”

The 2023 Honorific Award recipients are:

Blanche P. Alter, MD, MPH, National Cancer Institute, Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics
Wallace H. Coulter Award for Lifetime Achievement in Hematology

Dr. Alter, a renowned physician-scientist, is being recognized for a lifetime of accomplishments that revolutionized research for inherited bone marrow failure syndromes (IBMFS). She is well known within her field for spearheading the first interdisciplinary clinical research program dedicated to investigating cancer-prone IBMFS such as Fanconi anemia (FA), dyskeratosis congenita (DC), Diamond-Blackfan anemia (DBA), and Shwachman-Diamond Syndrome (SDS). Her groundbreaking research has been invaluable in developing screening recommendations to detect cancer as early as possible and help patients live longer.

Her journey to clinical medicine began as an undergraduate research assistant, but Dr. Alter quickly realized that she wanted to bridge the gap between the laboratory and the bedside. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, she pursued a pediatrics residency at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she developed a passion for hematology. The unique manifestations of hematologic disorders under the microscope fascinated her. She was the first researcher to prospectively investigate and quantify cancer rates in FA and DC through a groundbreaking pilot study.

After serving as director of the pediatric hematology unit at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Dr. Alter completed a master's degree in public health at Johns Hopkins to gain training in epidemiology. Subsequently, at the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Alter established a clinical research program that brought together epidemiologic and prospective studies on cancer and genotypes in major IBMFS. Her research has created a comprehensive body of knowledge about these disorders and their manifestations, diagnoses, and genetic causation. Her work has become the model other researchers use to study the mechanisms of cancer development.

As one of five women in a class of 92 students, Dr. Alter’s path to hematology was not without obstacles. Nevertheless, she shattered glass ceilings throughout her medical career, advocating for equal pay and equitable access to education. Her unwavering commitment continues to inspire the next generation of women in medicine. She is a respected authority in her field and a beloved mentor to many early-career scientists. Dr. Alter has been a member of ASH for more than 50 years.

Johnny Mahlangu, MBBCh, MMed, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
Takehisa Kitazawa, DVM, PhD, Chugai Pharmaceutical
Ernest Beutler Lecture and Prize

This award recognizes Dr. Mahlangu’s 20 years of involvement in the development of novel therapies for hemophilia A. It also highlights Dr. Kitazawa’s groundbreaking development of a novel therapeutic molecule that functions instead of the deficient blood coagulation factor for hemophilia A, leading to effective hemostasis. These breakthroughs have significantly advanced the development of new therapies for bleeding disorders.

For decades, Dr. Mahlangu has been involved in the development of novel therapies for hemophilia and recently led the development of the first gene therapy for hemophilia A, offering patients with this bleeding disorder the opportunity to lead more normal lives. Prior to this breakthrough, individuals with hemophilia relied on clotting factor replacement, which was not consistently effective and often resulted in unwanted side effects. Driven by a professor’s lecture on the molecular basis of hemoglobinopathies and malignancies during medical school, Dr. Mahlangu became fascinated with the molecular underpinnings of hematology and dedicated his career to finding cures for these previously untreatable disorders.

With a background in veterinary medicine, Dr. Kitazawa chose to focus his career on drug discovery, aiming to create a transformative therapy for those living with critical illnesses. His goal was realized through the successful creation of a coagulation factor-mimetic in the form of a bispecific antibody, and the development of a drug that challenged conventional approaches for treating hemophilia A providing numerous significant advantages impacting the quality of life of people living with hemophilia A. Driven by the mysteries of hematology and a determination to measure the effectiveness of drug candidates intervening in coagulation, he embarked on a path that led to remarkable advancements in the field.

Alexis A. Thompson, MD, MPH, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
ASH Award for Leadership in Promoting Diversity

Dr. Alexis Thompson is being recognized for her exemplary leadership in addressing the health care needs of an underserved population and for mentoring trainees from communities historically underrepresented in hematology. Her work has focused on patients with hemoglobinopathies, with a particular emphasis on sickle cell disease. She has made significant contributions to this field through extensive publications, clinical practice, and advocacy. Her research has resulted in the introduction of innovative treatments for patients with sickle cell disease and thalassemia, as well as other hemoglobinopathies. Furthermore, she has actively advocated for the inclusion of minority patients in clinical trials, both on national and international levels. Dr. Thompson’s outstanding leadership and unwavering optimism continue to inspire those around her to improve the lives of individuals from minority groups living with blood disorders.

Dr. Thompson takes great pride in her collaborative work with ASH to bring novel sickle cell treatments to the forefront of drug development and gene therapy for hematologic conditions. She is honored to be part of a society that prioritizes innovation, advocacy, and education to improve the lives of individuals living with sickle cell disease around the world.

Since serving as ASH president in 2018, Dr. Thompson has continued her tenure with the Society in various roles, including mentoring trainees through the Society’s Minority Medical Student Award Program (MMSAP) for over a decade. As a mentor to many, her efforts have helped shape ASH recruitment initiatives to strengthen the hematology workforce. She has served as a role model and her positive influence has helped support trainees from groups historically underrepresented in hematology to become future leaders with former mentees acting as MMSAP mentors and serving on ASH’s Minority Recruitment Initiative’s study sections and subcommittees. Dr. Thompson’s pioneering work continues to contribute to a more diverse and inclusive hematology workforce and to model the commitment to diversity and inclusiveness within ASH.

Omar Abdel-Wahab, MD, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
William Dameshek Prize

Dr. Abdel-Wahab is being recognized for his trailblazing research characterizing the genetic mutations that drive blood cancers. His work has focused on understanding the underlying recurrent mutations in the RNA splicing mechanism leading to the development of myelodysplastic syndromes and leukemia. This discovery has paved the way for the development of multiple drugs targeting RNA splicing activity, currently in the early phases of clinical development. Additionally, his research has played a pivotal role in securing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of the first targeted therapies for patients with rare blood cancers known as systemic histiocytic neoplasms.

Katy Rezvani, MD, PhD, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
E. Donnall Thomas Lecture and Prize 

Dr. Rezvani, a physician-scientist and renowned transplant immunology expert, is being honored for her groundbreaking contributions to cancer research. In her laboratory at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Dr. Rezvani leads a team investigating novel approaches to harnessing the immune system against cancer. Her expertise lies in optimizing cell therapies, particularly using natural killer (NK) cells engineered to express chimeric antigen receptors (CAR), to target and eliminate cancer. Dr. Rezvani has become a leader in developing immunotherapeutic strategies by genetically modifying natural killer cells derived from umbilical cord blood. This technology shows promise in treating a variety of cancer types, including myeloid malignancies and solid tumors. By overcoming challenges encountered with autologous CAR T cells, this paradigm-shifting approach has the potential to reduce toxicity, lower the cost of therapy, and increase patient access to potentially life-saving cancer immunotherapies. Dr. Rezvani also remains passionate about mentoring the next generation of scientists and physicians to continue advancing the state of cancer care.

Rodger McEver, MD, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation
James B. Bussel, MD, Weill Cornell Medicine
Henry M. Stratton Medal

Dr. McEver, the recipient of the Henry M. Stratton Medal for basic science, is being recognized for his pivotal discovery and characterization of a protein, known as P-selectin, and its ligand, PSGL-1, that play crucial roles in bridging the processes of blood clotting and inflammation. His main research focuses on understanding how platelets and leukocytes are recruited to sites of injury and infection. Dr. McEver’s contributions have ranged from basic discoveries about the biophysical properties of cell interactions to clinical advances, such as the development and approval of the anti-P-selectin monoclonal antibody, crizanlizumab, for the prevention of vaso-occlusive crises in sickle cell patients.

Dr. Bussel, the recipient of the Medal for translational/clinical science, is being honored for his invaluable contributions to the development of agents that increase platelet counts in patients with immune thrombocytopenia (ITP) and other conditions. His achievements include the groundbreaking discovery that giving intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) to mothers can raise platelet counts in cases of fetal and neonatal alloimmune thrombocytopenia (FNAIT) – a treatment now used around the world and that was recognized by the King Faisal prize in 2012. In the realm of ITP, Dr. Bussel has increased the understanding of how IVIG treatment prevents platelet destruction. His work has played a pivotal role in the development of many medications used to treat thrombocytopenic conditions, as recognized in the prescribing information for the three approved thrombopoietic (TPO) agents.

Stephen Sallan, MD, Dana Farber Cancer Institute
Helen Heslop, MD, DSc, Baylor College of Medicine
Mentor Award

For Dr. Sallan, mentorship remains the most rewarding aspect of his career. He has mentored hundreds of individuals throughout his career who have gone on to become leading investigators in hematology and oncology. His motivation to mentor others stems from the early impressions his own mentors made on him, encouraging him to push the boundaries of cancer medicine while remembering to find joy in his work and to always pass it forward. As a mentor, Dr. Sallan became widely recognized not only for providing his mentees with unparalleled scholarly opportunities but also for actively and selflessly promoting his mentees and propelling them to the next stages of their careers.

He began his journey in pediatric hematology 50 years ago after seeing advancements in treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) skyrocket, with breakthroughs such as immunologic cell surface markers, molecular measures of leukemia, and targeted therapies and immunotherapies. His research focuses on gaining a deeper understanding of the genetic underpinnings of ALL and the reasons for disease recurrence and drug resistance. His laboratory interactions continue to develop novel therapies, such as cancer vaccines, while aiming to reduce the toxicity of treatment.

Dr. Heslop is a highly respected mentor who is known for her inclusivity and commitment to helping her mentees advance in their careers. She is an exceptional physician-scientist who has made significant and lasting contributions to the field of hematology. One of her remarkable achievements is her ability to nurture a diverse group of mentees, including female physician-scientists and individuals from backgrounds historically underrepresented in hematology. Many of her mentees have gone on to become successful independent investigators. Among those she mentors, Dr. Heslop is recognized as an ideal leader who is patient, kind, and one who consistently prioritizes the success of her trainees.

Dr. Heslop’s primary research focuses on the development of adoptive immunotherapies. By genetically modifying cells, she has worked to improve hematopoietic stem cell transplantation and cancer therapies. She strives to ensure that her findings are translated from the lab to clinical trials to improve the lives of individuals living with cancer and blood disorders.

The awards will be presented during the 65th ASH Annual Meeting and Exposition, December 9-12, 2023, in San Diego, California.

Learn more about the ASH Honorific Awards.

The American Society of Hematology (ASH) (www.hematology.org) is the world’s largest professional society of hematologists dedicated to furthering the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disorders affecting the blood. For more than 60 years, the Society has led the development of hematology as a discipline by promoting research, patient care, education, training, and advocacy in hematology. ASH’s flagship journal, Blood (www.bloodjournal.org), is the most cited peer-reviewed publication in the field, and Blood Advances (www.bloodadvances.org) is an open-access, online journal that publishes more peer-reviewed hematology research than any other academic journal worldwide.

Kira Sampson, American Society of Hematology
[email protected]; 202-499-1796