Michael R. DeBaun, MD, of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, and Leonard Zon, MD, of Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, are being recognized for their outstanding support and guidance with the ASH Mentor Award. Dr. DeBaun recalled growing up surrounded by educators in an environment that promoted mentorship. His father and uncle coached many teams, and his mother, uncle, aunt, and grandfather were teachers. His wife is also formally trained to be a teacher. “Growing up, teaching and mentoring was simply an expectation and is part of the family culture that my wife and I established,” he said. Meanwhile, after 27 years in the lab, Dr. Zon still finds it difficult to think of others looking up to him as a role model. However, he firmly believes that mentoring is a critical part of his job: “I try to do my best to help people get to their dreams, be productive, and be happy,” he said. He also credits his own mentors, adding, “Just like hematopoiesis, lineage matters, and I have been lucky to train with great people.”
With a life goal to serve his community and a vision of hematology as a path to provide and advance medical care of children and adults with sickle cell disease (SCD), Dr. DeBaun focuses his research on the clinical epidemiology and optimal therapy of cerebrovascular and lung disease in children and adults with SCD. Recently, he has concentrated on the prevention of stroke in children with SCD living in low-income settings, decreasing pregnancy-related deaths in women with SCD living in Ghana, and studying haplo-identical hematopoietic stem cell transplantation for SCD. Additionally, Dr. DeBaun cites three major areas of research that keep him up at night and wake him up each morning: First, he is one of four protocol chairs on a National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute– sponsored Bone Marrow Transplant Clinical Trial Network Haplo-identical Transplant Protocol to cure adults with severe SCD and children who experience stroke or who are at risk for stroke. Dr. DeBaun works on this project alongside former mentee Adetola Kassim, MD, of Vanderbilt University, with whom he also leads the Vanderbilt Sickle Cell Disease Transplant Consortium.
Secondly, Dr. DeBaun works on a clinical research team composed of mentees from Kano and Kaduna in Nigeria studying primary and secondary stroke prevention in northern Nigeria. “This group is the best that I have worked with in more than 30 years of doing clinical research,” he said of the team. “Their enthusiasm to learn, attention to detail, and compassion for families and their children is outstanding.”
Lastly, Dr. DeBaun mentors a team of obstetricians and hematologists at Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, Ghana. With them, he has worked to drop the pregnancy-related mortality rate from 10,000 per 100,000 live births to approximately 1,000 per live births. He stressed his pride for Eugenia Asare, MD, a member of this group and the first ASH Clinical Research Training Institute scholar from Africa.
Dr. Zon spoke about his decision to study hematology: In medical school, he attended a lecture on erythropoietin by Allan Erslev, MD, and was so excited to learn that a hormone could control blood cell number that he dedicated two summers of research to it. Along the way, he trained with Stuart Orkin, MD, admitting, “I had the will to succeed, but I needed some polishing.” He also had guidance from Samuel Lux, MD, David Nathan, MD, and Jerome Groopman, MD. Dr. Zon learned that thinking broadly and taking risks, while being persistent, was a great formula for success. His careerlong interest has been hematopoiesis and the use of zebrafish as a model. He explained that his team has used zebrafish genetics to find genes involved in stem cell or red blood cell production, and after finding five families of fish with anemia, they cloned the gene and found patients with the mutated genes. “We study the blood stem cell niche in the marrow and how stem cells migrate,” he added. He explained that their goal is to understand the mechanisms of stem cell birth and colonization and to use these discoveries to help patients.
Dr. Zon elaborated on his work, pointing out their excitement and hopes that the discovery of a small molecule called PGE2 that stimulates blood stem cell engraftment and that has been studied in four clinical trials, will lead to a new therapy. He added that the zebrafish field has recently created a fish that can barcode each stem cell using CRISPR; this allows the tracing of clones of stem cells and helps probe how genes influence stem cell contribution to the blood or transplantation. “In one experiment you can find the lineage of the progenitors and also see what genes they express. That is pretty cool,” he said.
Despite experiencing mentorship in different ways, Drs. DeBaun and Zon remind those considering entering the field of hematology of the impact having a good mentor will have on their careers. “My path was a bit untraditional,” Dr. DeBaun commented. “I did not have the traditional mentor in the sense that we think of mentors today.” He added that he received outstanding education as a medical student at Stanford, as a pediatric resident and hematology oncology fellow at Washington University, and as a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins and the National Cancer Institute, with each institution providing an environment that encouraged intellectual entrepreneurship. “Each place was special in this way,” he stressed. He now advises trainees to “know yourself, and what makes you go to sleep late at night and wake up early in the morning to advance the care of your patients; then have fun doing the hard work.”
On a personal note, Dr. Zon said, “My daughter is now applying for hematology/oncology fellowships this year. I told her to work with the best mentors she can find, and then use her skill set to be the best mentor she can be.”