Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center

UM Loses World-Renowned Researcher in Viral Cancers William J. Harrington Jr., M.D.

02.06.2009

The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and its Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center are saddened to report the untimely passing of a renowned researcher, physician, colleague and friend. William J. Harrington, Jr., M.D., professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology-Oncology at the Miller School, died from a cerebral hemorrhage on January 29 at the age of 54.

“It is impossible to express how much he will be missed by everyone at Sylvester and throughout the medical school and university,” said W. Jarrard Goodwin, M.D., director of Sylvester.

Harrington, co-leader of the Viral Oncology Program at Sylvester, was considered a leading authority on viral-induced cancers, establishing one of the nation’s most distinctive programs. His research centered on ways to treat viral-related tumors that had proven resistant to conventional chemotherapy. His team found that interferon played a role in viral-mediated lymphomas, leading to a novel approach to attacking such tumors. Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-related Burkitt, and human T lymphotropic virus-type I (HTLV-I)- associated adult T-cell leukemia (ATL) are just some of the viral-mediated cancers that have been resistant to conventional chemotherapy yet have responded to antiviral therapy.

Goodwin says Harrington’s work as a UM faculty member of nearly two decades and his work in South America “set the standard for successful collaborative research.” He remembers his colleague as a “true champion for health care delivery to the underserved.”

A close colleague and friend, Glen Barber, Ph.D, professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology-Oncology and co-leader of the Viral Oncology Program with Harrington, said he “frequently obtained fantastic results that were not deemed possible.”

Harrington built relationships in South America that were unique, and bridged borders for research. He had been collaborating with investigators in Brazil to develop new therapies against Epstein Barr-related lymphoma, and was an internationally recognized expert for his clinical work with patients with HIV who developed viral lymphomas. Barber says Harrington “was revered in South America,” working to facilitate their research so patients there would have access to improved treatments. Harrington had recently received National Cancer Institute funding to study the mechanism of azidothymidine (AZT) on Epstein Barr Virus patients at the National Cancer Institute in Brazil.

“His death has sent a ripple throughout the scientific and clinical communities,” says Barber. The acclaimed scientist was also “an adventurer and free spirit” who loved the outdoors, exploring and hiking all over the world, often without a map.

Juan C. Ramos, M.D., assistant professor of clinical medicine, considered Harrington his mentor, and worked with him for the past eight years. “It is because of Bill’s influence that I work in this field and have been successful so far,” said Ramos, who first began working in Harrington’s clinic and laboratory during his residency.

Ramos also credits his mentor for his award of a highly competitive grant to continue work in Harrington’s original project on HTLV1-related lymphomas. He says the visionary work that is Harrington’s legacy and passion will continue. “That’s my commitment. There’s nothing else that would drive me.”

Harrington’s work and dedication to his patients are what stand out for Mark Goodman, M.D., associate professor of medicine. He explains that Harrington’s patients were often poor and had no insurance, but he would see them any time of the day or night. Goodman says his colleague had a “real respect for the profession of medicine and for humanity.”

Harrington’s love for the University of Miami was described by many who knew him. Ramos says he cared deeply about the cancer center, the university and its academic status around the nation. Barber says he was really proud of the university and the Canes. “UM ran in his veins.”

Harrington’s link to UM began at a young age. His father, William J. Harrington Sr., M.D., former chair of medicine, founded the William J. Harrington Medical Training Programs in Latin America, which train top-tier medical graduates from Latin America and the Caribbean. Harrington had been encouraged to travel to Brazil just out of school, according to his brother, Thomas Harrington, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at the Miller School of Medicine. The 18 months he spent in that country left a strong impression on him. Harrington picked up his father’s legacy, and had become co-director of the Medical Training Programs.

“He lived to ensure that his father’s legacy continued, but he worked to build his own legacy,” says Ramos. He, Barber and other colleagues plan to continue that work. They remember his passion, his unwavering dedication to his patients, the university and the work to be done. Ramos says, “He never stopped, he never really stopped. He was always Bill.”

Bill Harrington is survived by his wife, Tania, whom he met in Brazil; mother, Mary; sons Matthew and Gabriel, with Tania; son William of Miami and daughter Julianna de Melo of Orlando, from a previous marriage; granddaughter Maria Clara; brothers Tom and Tim; and sister Ann Healy of Georgia. His organs were donated to others.

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