On Aug. 7, a flatbed truck struck and killed Dr. Anita Kurmann, a Swiss surgeon and scientist, as she rode her bicycle in Boston’s Back Bay. She was 38, and just on the verge of launching her own lab.
Her death has brought an outpouring of grief in recent weeks — from family in Switzerland, from her admiring colleagues at Boston hospitals, from the city’s cycling community.
This week brings Kurmann’s scientific memorial: a paper by a team of 17 researchers in the journal Cell Stem Cell, reporting a major advance on using stem cells to grow thyroids.
Kurmann had found out just days before she died that the paper was likely to be accepted for publication, and her colleagues dedicated it to her memory. The dedication reads in part: “She was intelligent, well read, kind, humble, and tirelessly committed to her patients, her thyroid research, her family, and her colleagues, who miss her dearly.”
The paper describes, in effect, nature’s recipe for growing a thyroid, the butterfly-shaped gland in your neck that can speed up or slow down your bodily functions.
“She was incredibly proud of this work,” said Dr. Anthony Hollenberg of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “She was able to figure out how to do the mouse surgical experiments that were required to see that the stem cells functioned.”
Dr. Darrell Kotton, of Boston Medical Center’s and Boston University’s Center for Regenerative Medicine, who oversaw the research with Hollenberg, says Kurmann’s loss remains difficult to accept on many levels.
“I’m not only speaking about the grief one feels when suddenly losing someone close to you,” he said, “but in Anita’s case, one can’t help but feel the loss of so much potential, and the loss of all the scientific progress she was about to contribute to the world.”
Kurmann had a faculty position waiting for her and planned to return home to Switzerland and launch her own lab at the end of the year, he said. “So the world really has lost a unique person who was about to lead a team that was to propel her discoveries forward using everything she had learned and developed.”
“One can’t help but feel the loss of so much potential, and the loss of all the scientific progress she was about to contribute to the world.”
“It’s hard to believe she’s gone,” he added, “and I just still often imagine her returning home as a scientist-surgeon treating her patients, but also teaching her own trainees how to grow and transplant these special thyroid progenitor cells she was able to engineer from pluripotent stem cells.”
To translate: Kurmann and her co-first author, Boston University’s Maria Serra, were experimenting on stem cells at the “pluripotent” stage, when they could grow into multiple types of cells. The paper identifies key factors that appear to tip the cells into “deciding” to become thyroid cells, and the team showed that they could coax human stem cells into becoming functional, hormone-emitting thyroid tissue. Continue reading