AAI In Memoriam

Joost J. Oppenheim

AAI extends condolences to the family, friends, and colleagues of Joost J. Oppenheim, M.D. DFAAI (AAI ’68), a renowned immunologist and dedicated AAI member of over five decades who died on May 14. Dr. Oppenheim was senior investigator and head of the Cellular Immunology Section in the Cancer Innovation Laboratory at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), NIH.

Before his death, Oppenheim was elected this spring as a Distinguished Fellow of AAI, one of the highest honors bestowed by AAI. The honor recognizes active, long-term members for distinguished careers and outstanding scientific contributions as well as their service to AAI and the immunology community.

Oppenheim’s active AAI involvement included service as a member of the Finance Committee, Program Committee (including as chair), ad hoc Meetings Committee (since retired), and Committee on Travel Awards to the Third International Congress of Immunology. He participated as a major symposium chair and speaker at multiple AAI meetings and on the faculty of the AAI Advanced Course in Immunology. He also served as an associate editor for The Journal of Immunology and held appointments as AAI representative to the FASEB Finance and Meetings Committees.

The following remembrance was published by Oppenheim’s colleagues at the NCI Center for Cancer Research (CCR), and is reprinted here with the kind permission of CCR director Tom Misteli, Ph.D.

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The CCR community is profoundly saddened by the recent passing of Joost “Joe” Oppenheim, M.D., Senior Investigator and Head of the Cellular Immunology Section in the Cancer Innovation Laboratory. He died on May 14, 2022, at the age of 87.

Joost was engaged in cellular immunology research at the NIH for five decades and was instrumental in the discovery of cytokines, chemokines, and alarmins, which are substances produced by immune cells that enable them to communicate and act as “first responders” to injury or infection.

A pioneer in the field of immune cell regulation and response, Joost was one of the first to recognize the importance of intercellular cytokine signals in the regulation of immune defenses against infections and tumors. His early research focused on interleukin 1 (IL-1), and he proved the compound’s capacity to protect animals from death caused by radiation and chemotherapeutic agents. His findings led to clinical evaluation of IL-1 for human cancer treatments.

Joost’s research group generated landmark discoveries and the birth of the chemokine field. They purified, characterized, and patented IL-8 and monocyte chemotactic protein-1 (MCP-1) and demonstrated that chemokines play key roles in AIDS, inflammation, immune responses, and development. The lab’s numerous discoveries prompted some to nickname him the “Father of Cytokines,” and his later work focused on utilizing alarmins as vaccine ingredients for use against infectious agents and tumors.

Joost was born in 1934 in the town of Venlo, Netherlands, near the German border. He and his brother survived the Holocaust as Jewish children hidden by a Catholic Dutch family, the Heuvelmans. Joost's family moved to the United States soon after World War II. A talented student, he attended the Bronx High School of Science and then Columbia University. He obtained his M.D. degree from the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, in 1960, and then interned at King County Hospital in Seattle.

He joined the NIH’s postgraduate program in 1962 and trained as a clinical associate at the NCI. Following that, he was an honorary research fellow in immunology at the University of Birmingham, England. In 1966, he returned to the NIH and started his lab at the National Institute of Dental Research. He served as the medical director of the United States Public Health Service from 1975 to 1983, then moved to the NCI in 1983 and served as the chief of the Laboratory of Immunoregulation until 2015.

Over the course of his career, Joost accumulated numerous accolades, including the Technology Transfer Award from NCI (2001–2005), the NCI Outstanding Mentor Award (2004), the International Cytokine Society (ICS) Honorary Lifetime Award (2004), the Metaphor Scientist Award from Regensburg, Germany (2006), the Trisociety Award from the International Cytokine Society (ICS), International Society for Interferon and Cytokine Research (IFN), and Society for Leukocyte Biology (SLB) (2009), the Harold Stewart Award from the Jackson Foundation of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) (2010), and a Certificate of Appreciation from the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences Cancer Institute (2013). He was editor-in-chief of the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, served on the editorial board of several prominent international scientific journals, and was a member of numerous societies including the American Academy of Microbiology, American Association of Immunologists, American Society for Clinical Investigation, International Cytokine Society, SLB, and the Association of American Physicians. Most recently, in 2022, he was elected as a Distinguished Fellow of the American Association of Immunologists.

Joost was a titan in his research and academic accomplishments, and he was an inspiration both to his mentees and colleagues. “His publications do not convey that a secret of his success as a researcher often seemed to flow as much from intuition as from serendipity,” said his longtime colleague and friend Scott K. Durum, Ph.D., “nor do they convey the self-deprecatory wit that sparkled through his lectures from the most prestigious podiums.”

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to Joost's preferred charities: Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Montgomery Hospice, Inc. (Casey House), and Weizmann Institute. Please share stories and memories about Joost here on this remembrance Facebook page.

Posted on Monday, 05/16/2022

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Other remembrances of Dr. Oppenheim include those offered by fellow AAI members Arthur A. “Andy” Hurwitz, Ph.D. (AAI ’99), senior vice president, Mana Therapeutics; and Howard A. Young, Ph.D. (AAI ’90), senior investigator, Cancer Innovation Laboratory, NCI, NIH.

Dr. Hurwitz, a past Oppenheim mentee, said “It is hard to assess the impact of Joe’s journey and career on so many scientists. Like others, I was lucky to have Joe as a mentor and colleague for many years. He delivered the kind of critical advice with his unique warmth and humor that we rarely find in science. And he was always ready to challenge and discuss with his beloved ‘So what?’.”

Of his longtime CCR colleague, Dr. Young said “Joe Oppenheim was a force of nature who made everyone think about the relevance of their work with his famous ‘So what’ question. While it might initially be taken as harsh or rude, when one thought about the question in a calmer environment, it did make one think about the relevance of one’s work. At our Frederick laboratories, I had many discussions with him about my work, and I felt it was always a challenge to convince him that my experimental approaches would lead to relevant data. Joe was extremely loyal to the many scientists who went through his lab and always helped them reach their career goals. He had a wonderful, long life—despite a rough early life that included being hidden from the Nazis by a Dutch family—and Joe was very proud of his children and many grandchildren. His loss has saddened many, but his memory will forever be a part of the rich history of immunology.”

Dr. Young’s May 15 message to NIH Immunology Interest Group colleagues cited Dr. Oppenheim’s surviving family members and other loved ones:

Joost Oppenheim is survived by his second wife, Ann Goldman; four children, Meers, Monty, Matthew, and Emia; two stepchildren, Randy and Dale; and many grandchildren. He was predeceased by his beloved first wife, Elizabeth (Libby) Oppenheim.

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