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Mark Israel, M.D.: Mega-mentor
For several months in 2001, even before pediatric oncologist Mark Israel, M.D., went on the payroll as the director of DHMC's Norris Cotton Cancer Center, he was flying across the country every week—between California and New Hampshire—to meet with Dartmouth clinicians, researchers, and administrators. He also met with the architects who were planning an expansion of the Cancer Center building. Early on, Israel delivered an impassioned 20-minute speech about how the new Cancer Center would be a place where scientists and physicians could interact, collaborate, generate ideas, and ultimately develop new therapies to conquer cancer.
By 2003, under Israel's leadership, Norris Cotton Cancer Center had grown from four stories to eight. Not only was it architecturally beautiful—with sunny labs; graceful, arched ceilings; brightly painted walls; dramatic atriums; and windows several stories high—but it was practical—with adjustable benches, shelves, and drawer units that can be reconfigured to create flexible lab layouts. And perhaps of most import, the space was socially inviting—with lounges, common areas, and meeting rooms where scientists can mingle and share ideas for collaborating on projects.
"I don't think I realized how important building the building actually was," Israel says now. "It's really become a nidus around which enthusiasm and commitment and a sense of importance for cancer medicine and cancer research has emerged. And that has far exceeded my expectations."
Dartmouth's cancer center is one of only 39 in the U.S. designated as a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Its physicians provide care for all types of cancers, and its researchers explore a broad range of issues, such as immunotherapy, drug resistance, drug mechanisms, drug metabolism, psycho-oncology, imaging, gene expression, and palliative care. Yet if you met Israel on
the street—or at DHMC, for that matter—you might never guess that he presides over such an impressive enterprise. He's friendly and easygoing and often casually dressed. He's more likely to be sporting a fleece vest over a shirt with its sleeves rolled up, than to be wearing a white lab coat or a suit and tie.
Knowing Israel's background, you might also never guess that he'd have ended up in medicine. His grandparents and parents ran a family business for years in Newburgh, N.Y.—a department store called Israel's. But Mark Israel wanted to be a doctor—maybe a psychiatrist—and so after college he enrolled in Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
"I really got interested in the scientific part of medicine in medical school," he recalls. "I think I was really impressed with how little we knew about so many different things. I had always liked science. I liked the idea of applying science."
One summer, after his second year in medical school, he worked in a psychiatry lab at the Maudsley Hospital in London. "I had a wonderful experience in London, but I had a terrible experience in the research piece because it just seemed very
superficial to me," recalls Israel. The research he was doing that summer focused on behavioral interventions to help people overcome phobias.
When Israel returned to the United States, he took a year off from medical school to work in a neurochemistry lab at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. "That turned out to be a very productive experience, and I really learned a lot," he says. "I got very excited about laboratory research."
After completing medical school in 1973, he did a residency in pediatric oncology at Boston Children's Hospital, then a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular genetics at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
"I got very lucky because I landed there right after the advent of recombinant DNA technology," he says. "One of my first assignments in the lab was to clone a tumor-causing virus called polyoma virus. That work ended up being done at the Army's Fort Detrick germ warfare facility under what at the time was the most restricted, most protective kind of research environment—in negative-pressure hoods and negative-pressure buildings, shower-in/shower-out," Israel explains, "because there was fear that the cloning of a virus into a bacteria would get into the water supply and everyone would get cancer. The risks associated with molecular cloning were totally unknown, and so everyone erred on the side of safety."
Israel spent 14 years at the NIH, including as head of the NCI's Molecular Genetics Section. "That was an exciting time in science, and my lab was lucky to be a part of all that," he says. It was "a time of great and rapid discovery in the area of cancer medicine and the molecular basis of cancer biology."
In 1989, he left the NIH for the University of California at San Francisco, to head the Preusss Laboratory for Molecular Neuro- Oncology. The Preuss Lab studies the
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Laura Carter is Dartmouth Medicine magazine's associate editor.