Fighting Cancer: For Dr. Pasche, It’s Personal

Boris Pasche, MD, PhD, FACP

Boris Pasche, MD, PhD, FACP, had already earned medical degrees in his native Switzerland and also Sweden as well as a doctorate degree on blood clotting, immigrated to the United States, and started an internship at New York Hospital, when a personal epiphany reset his career plans.

“Everything in my academic career changed in September 1994,” recalled Pasche, who became director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center on March 1, 2014. “My rotation landed me on the leukemia ward at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and it was a painful reminder that my brother had died of acute myeloid leukemia 10 years earlier. I did not want to do cancer research or practice cancer medicine. His death had hurt me deeply, and I thought it would be too difficult, but one morning I woke up and realized it was what I needed to do.” 

Born and raised in Lausanne, Switzerland, Pasche considered law and engineering before choosing medicine as a career. He entered a six-year program at the University of Lausanne immediately after high school. Two and a half years later, he went to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, as an exchange student for one year. 

“During that year in Sweden, I was impressed by the research opportunities at the Institute and realized that was something I found stimulating,” Pasche said. “I started to do research at night and on weekends.” 

The Institute invited him to stay. After completing his Swedish medical degree in 1986, Pasche returned to Switzerland, which did not recognize his credentials. He took the Swiss medical exams and earned his second medical degree in 1987, then returned to Karolinska Institute and finished his PhD in 1989. 

While there, he befriended Harvard professor Charles Serhan, PhD, who was doing postdoctoral work at Karolinska. Serhan encouraged him to move to the United States and set up interviews that brought Pasche to Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston for a postdoctoral fellowship in coagulation research. 

“He convinced me that my opportunities would be better in the United States,” Pasche said. “In Europe, you’re either a clinician or a scientist. The path of physician scientist is not as well established there.” 

Pasche remained at Harvard until his fateful internship. After switching his career focus to hematology oncology, he participated in research that identified a signaling molecule linked to cell growth and cancer susceptibility. When he obtained his first grant, he looked for opportunities to start his own lab and took a position at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, establishing its cancer genetics program. 

In 2008, Dean Edward Abraham, who was then chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, recruited Pasche to UAB to become director of the Division of Hematology/Oncology and deputy director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. Five and a half years later, Abraham called Pasche again. 

“I enjoyed working with Dean Abraham from 2008 to 2011, before he came here,” Pasche noted. “We think alike in many ways, and in considering such an important job, it is reassuring to know the leadership is aligned with your thinking. I was impressed with the institution’s commitment to the Cancer Center, having retained comprehensive cancer center status for more than 25 years and making significant investments in the recent expansion. 

“Last but not least, my wife, Valerie, is from North Carolina. This move gave us and our children, Samuel and Sarah, a chance to be closer to her family in Scotland Neck. So, the institution’s steady commitment to clinical excellence, the strong scientific and translational environment, and the personal aspects all combined to make me feel this was a really great place to work.” 

 

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