John Pawelek, Who Explored the Causes of Metastasis, Dies at 79

The Yale School of Medicine cancer researcher doggedly pursued the question of how cancer spreads.

marcus a. banks
Marcus A. Banks

Marcus is a science and health journalist based in New York City. He graduated from the Science Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University in 2019, and earned...

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Jun 22, 2021
John Pawalek
yale school of medicine

John Mason Pawelek, a dermatology and cancer researcher at the Yale School of Medicine, died on May 31 at age 79 of an apparent heart attack. Pawelek, a past president of the Pan American Society for Pigment Cell Research, had a longstanding interest in the biological factors that regulate skin pigmentation. In recent years, he became interested in understanding what causes the skin cancer melanoma to metastasize.

“Even though he was in his late 70s, John thought like a 19-year-old” in that he was always open to new ideas that cut against the grain, and was in no way beholden to current medical orthodoxies, says Greggory LaBerge, a medical geneticist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine who also directs the Denver Police Department’s Forensics and Evidence Division.

LaBerge collaborated frequently with Pawelek to test the provocative idea that many solid tumors spread throughout the body after immune cells and cancer cells have fused. LaBerge says Pawelek believed that such fusion could explain metastasis for many cancers, not just melanoma, and that stopping such cell fusion is a promising new treatment target. Other experts in oncology, as The Scientist recently reported, believe that more evidence is needed to make such sweeping claims.

Pawelek was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 15, 1942. He graduated in 1963 from Gettysburg College, where he met his future wife Linda through singing in the college choir. Pawelek went on to earn a doctorate in biology from Brown University in 1967, after which he began an affiliation with Yale University that lasted more than 50 years.

In the 1990s, Pawelek helped develop a synthetic melanin product known as Melasyn, which he initially intended as a skin cancer preventive. Dermatologists have long known that insufficient melanin production is linked to a higher risk of wrinkling and various skin cancers, and Pawalek’s research using mice showed that Melasyn protected against UV exposure. The product, which can adjust to the complexion of the person wearing it, blending into the varying skin tones of different people, was eventually marketed and sold as a cosmetic product.

According to an obituary, in his free time Pawelek was a bon vivant who participated in piano jam sessions at pigment cell conferences and performed in church plays and musicals at the Unitarian Society of New Haven, Connecticut. He once played piano with Fats Domino and was among the activists who marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.

“He was one of a kind. He was very passionate about everything he did,” says Anjela Galan, a skin cancer pathologist at Yale who collaborated with Pawelek to study the causes of metastasis. “I was shocked about his loss because he was so lively.”

LaBerge concurs. “He was a great guy who was so much fun to be around.”

In a career that produced nearly 200 peer-reviewed publications, Pawelek was perhaps most excited by the paper/manuscript that turned out to be the final one of his lifetime, Galan notes. In a May 28 study in Cancer GeneticsPawelek, LaBerge, Galan, and colleagues demonstrated a complete metastatic journey of fused immune-cancer cells from a primary melanoma site to a lymph node and then to the brain. This followed earlier work by Pawelek and colleagues hinting at such a trajectory.

Pawelek is survived by his wife Linda; sons Aaron, Josh, and Nathan; daughters-in-law Susan, Stephany, and Karen; and grandchildren Oliver, Mason, Aidan, Zachary, and Max.