Correction to This Article
The obituary for Anita B. Roberts that ran May 27 incorrectly reported her age; she was 64. The story also incorrectly noted the schools where she did postdoctoral work; her only postdoctoral work was at Harvard University's medical school.

Noted Cancer Researcher Anita B. Roberts

Anita B. Roberts was considered a supportive and upbeat supervisor.
Anita B. Roberts was considered a supportive and upbeat supervisor.
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 27, 2006

Anita B. Roberts, 66, a highly regarded cancer researcher whose work illuminated how cancer progresses and how wounds heal, died of gastric cancer May 26 at her home in Bethesda.

Dr. Roberts, the 49th most-cited scientist in the world and the third most-cited female scientist, was chief of the Laboratory of Cell Regulation and Carcinogenesis at the National Cancer Institute, where she created a nurturing culture, a colleague said.

She and her research partner, Dr. Michael Sporn of Dartmouth Medical School, won the 2005 Komen Foundation Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction for their work on molecules that can turn a healthy cell cancerous. She also won the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology's 2005 Award for Excellence in Science. She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Those accolades for Dr. Roberts seemed little comfort two years ago when her gastric cancer was diagnosed.

"When I was first diagnosed with this cancer, I was so angry about my research," she told the journal Cancer Research in its spring 2006 issue. "I thought: 'What have I been doing for 25 years? Who cares what compound binds to what piece of DNA?' That lasted about a week. Then I realized we now have drugs based on what we understand from our basic research."

Her work focused on TGF-beta, or transforming growth factor beta, a messenger molecule integral to the activities of the cell cycle. She and Sporn found that this protein has a role in autoimmune diseases, fibrogenesis, carcinogenesis and wound healing and that research is forming the basis of new therapeutic approaches in breast cancer.

"Cancer is not just a disease of a tumor cell," she told Cancer Research. "It's a disease of where the tumor cell is and what the surrounding cells are telling it. That's what makes cancer similar to a wound that doesn't heal, and that's why we're also interested in wound healing."

Dr. Roberts was described as a warm, enthusiastic and consistently upbeat supervisor who figured out how to balance work and family not just for herself, but for her colleagues as well, said Dr. Lalage Wakefield, who worked with her for 25 years. She kept the 17 people in her lab happy "through the force of her personality," Wakefield said, describing a clear-eyed and supportive scientist.

"She never lost sight of the personal component in all this. Work is done by people, and it needs to be done in a cooperative fashion," Wakefield said. "She created an environment in the lab that people agree is unique on [the NIH] campus."

Dr. Roberts, a Pittsburgh native, graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and received a doctoral degree in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin. She did postdoctoral work as a National Institutes of Health fellow at Wisconsin and Harvard Medical School before becoming staff chemist at Aerospace Research Applications Center in Bloomington, Ind. She then taught chemistry at Indiana University.

She joined the National Cancer Institute in 1976 and by 1990 rose to deputy chief of the Laboratory of Cell Regulation and Carcinogenesis, then its acting chief and, in 1995, to chief, a position she held until two years ago.

She enjoyed baking and visiting Bethany Beach, and she made 10 trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.

Survivors include her husband of 41 years, Robert E. Roberts of Bethesda; two children, Greg Roberts of Alpharetta, Ga., and Karl Roberts of Grand Rapids, Mich.; a sister, Dorrie Derge of Frederick; and five grandchildren.

After devoting her professional life to research, Dr. Roberts told Cancer Research, "I cannot listen to a seminar on cancer now without making it into my cancer," wondering how she could become one of the patients who responded well to one treatment or another. "So, yes, I take it all very personally now."

"Research takes a long, long time," she said. "I know the public is always looking for a magic bullet. They want you to say, 'This does that.' But our own biology is incredibly complex, so 'this' doesn't always do 'that.' As basic scientists, we're all driven by our excitement in finding answers. We hope it ends up as something that becomes therapy. But that doesn't happen unless you have a basic understanding of the process. And that's what my work is all about."

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