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At an age when most people are winding down their lives – savoring their remaining time with family, friends or hobbies – 83-year-old Samuel Rahbar, M.D., Ph.D., behaved like he was just beginning his.
Each day, he left his Encino, Calif. home, driving to his City of Hope lab in Duarte by 6:30 a.m. with the fervor of a new grad.
“I once asked him why he did not think of enjoying retirement – and he laughed and said he could not even think of that because his goal is to work until the last breath to develop the best drugs for life-threatening diseases,” said Rama Natarajan, Ph.D., director of the Division of Molecular Diabetes Research at City of Hope and the National Office Products Industry Professor in Diabetes Research.
"Well, we all know that is just what happened,” she added. Rahbar worked at City of Hope until Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, and when he returned home that evening, he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. He died on Nov. 10, 2012.
To commemorate Rahbar’s contributions, City of Hope is creating The Samuel Rahbar Professorship in Diabetes & Drug Discovery, a permanent, endowed professorship that will perpetuate Dr. Rahbar’s legacy, and honor his life and research for generations to come.
“Dr. Rahbar’s research fundamentally transformed our understanding of diabetes and dramatically improved the lives of people everywhere with the disease,” said Michael A. Friedman, M.D., chief executive officer of City of Hope. “Now, with the help of the Los Angeles community, we want to recognize Dr. Rahbar’s many extraordinary contributions to science and continue his life-saving research by establishing the Samuel Rahbar Professorship in Diabetes & Drug Discovery."
“By investing the endowment, the professorship exists in perpetuity and is held by a succession of accomplished men and women in science and medicine. It will serve as a lasting reminder of Dr. Rahbar’s remarkable achievements,” Friedman added.
Even as Rahbar aged, his work ethic, passion for science, loyalty to colleagues and commitment to making life better for patients continued to flourish.
A distinguished professor in the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology & Metabolism at City of Hope, where he worked for more than three decades, Rahbar could have coasted on his reputation.
After all, this was the man who in 1968 discovered that people with diabetes had elevated levels of glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) -- a seminal finding that revolutionized the way the disease is diagnosed and treated and continues to improve the lives of millions of diabetic patients throughout the world. In June 2012 this discovery of HbA1c as a marker of glycemic status in diabetic patients earned him the Samuel Rahbar Outstanding Discovery Award from the American Diabetes Association.
“Dr. Rahbar was a true pioneer and one of the world’s great scientists,” said Arthur Riggs, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research at City of Hope. “Not many scientists start a completely new field of research, but Dr. Rahbar did so by his discovery of the glycation of hemoglobin in diabetics.” Glycation is a process believed to cause the late effects of diabetes, like poor peripheral circulation, retinal damage, and kidney and heart disease.
Today, the HbA1c test remains the gold standard in diagnosing diabetes and its complications and monitoring the effectiveness of therapies.
Rahbar, whose parents were Jewish and Iranian, was born in Hamedan Iran in 1929. He attended the University of Tehran, earning his medical degree in 1953 and his Doctor of Immunology degree a decade later.
In 1957, Rahbar accompanied his terminally ill brother to Israel where he sought treatment for multiple myeloma, but the treatments failed to save him. His brother’s passing infused Rahbar with a new life mission: finding cures for people with devastating diagnoses.
Rahbar had become fascinated with the structure of hemoglobin and while in Israel, attended a lecture by Cambridge researcher Dr. Hermann Lehmann, who invited Rahbar to study with him in England.
At Lehmann’s suggestion, when Rahbar returned to the University of Tehran, he created a research program investigating the hemoglobin variations of the country’s distinct tribes. This proved a perfect laboratory to pursue genetic research in hemoglobin, and also set the stage for his discovery of HbA1c.
In 1979, following the overthrow of the Shah, Rahbar, a full professor at the University of Tehran, escaped political persecution by taking his wife and three daughters to the United States. He soon began working at City of Hope.
From the beginning, Rahbar shared his love of science with colleagues. “He was always eager to initiate collaboration with everyone, talking avidly about the latest compound that can be effective against so many debilitating complications, cancer and other diseases,” recalled Natarajan. At City of Hope, he found the perfect nurturing environment for collaboration, a campus where scientists and clinicians studying cancer and diabetes routinely crossed paths – and shared ideas.
To seasoned investigators and fledgling scientists alike, Rahbar was an inspiring role model, an intellectually nimble mentor and trusted editor. He took invitations to review their work seriously, and meticulously pored over their drafts, providing substantive notes that helped ensure their publication.
Though passionately driven about research, he also was a thoughtful, compassionate man who made time for friendships and always remembered to ask about colleagues’ families. Charming and warm, he “often spoiled his collaborators by taking us out to lunch and giving us gifts at the holidays,” recalled Tim Synold, director, Analytical Pharmacology Core Facility, and Scientific Director, Solid Tumor Phase I Program in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology.
“He cared deeply about science and especially about advancing the treatment of patients with diabetes,” said Synold. “He wanted to continue making new discoveries that could positively impact patients’ lives.”
“I know he’ll be forever remembered for the discovery of Hb1Ac, but throughout his lifetime, his passion to seek the answers and help solve humanity’s pressing health issues was truly inspiring,” said James L. Figarola, Ph.D., assistant research professor, Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism. “He was the most dedicated, respectful and kindest person I’ve ever met,” said Figarola. “He was more than a mentor to me; he was like my second father.”
Such accolades suggest why hundreds of people attended Rahbar’s memorial service last November and why so many people are dedicated to keeping his research thriving.
Along with his wife, Mahin Rahbar, daughters Roya Rahbar-Pouldar, Guita Rahbar-Fouladian, and Firoozeh Bakshian, D.D.S., and his 10 grandchildren, Rahbar also is survived by a family of researchers who continue his work in City of Hope laboratories.
In recent years, Rahbar had begun exploring the metabolic link between cancer and diabetes, increasingly recognized as a significant factor in global health.
He also continued to make major contributions by developing several novel “small molecule” inhibitors of advanced glycation end products, which promised to lead to desperately needed new therapies for the debilitating complications of diabetes like vision loss and nerve damage to the extremities.
One of the most promising discoveries is a small molecule called COH-SR4. In 2011, Rahbar began collaborating with Figarola, Sharad Singhal, Ph.D., research professor, Department of Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research, and Sanjay Awasthi, M.D., professor, Department of Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research, on this newly synthesized compound which blocked the growth of cultured lung cancer and melanoma cells.
Figarola continues to test COH-SR4 as a potential new chemotherapeutic agent for leukemia and a wide variety of human cancers -- of the colon, brain, ovary, breast, prostate and kidney.
Figarola also is studying COH-SR4’s potential in treating obesity and related metabolic disorders.
Additionally, researchers in other City of Hope labs are investigating the molecule’s potential use in ovarian cancer, glioma (brain cancer) and osteosarcoma (bone cancer).
Figarola and Synold are collaborating on studies involving a drug that Rahbar developed (LR-90), which inhibits glycation. Rahbar discovered that LR-90 can block glycation, thus preventing or delaying debilitating side effects like poor circulation and damage to the eyes, heart and kidneys.
Synold also is working with John Termini, Ph.D., professor, Molecular Medicine, to study the molecular basis of glycation at the DNA level. Termini, Rahbar and Synold developed a method to measure a particular type of DNA damage that results from glycation, and Termini subsequently showed that this DNA damage causes mutation and may explain why patients with diabetes are at higher risk for certain kinds of cancer.
Termini and Timothy O’Connor, Ph.D., professor, Cancer Biology, just received a National Institutes of Health grant to study the role of glycation-mediated DNA mutations in cancer development.
Today, to ensure that Rahbar’s work continues in City of Hope laboratories so that it will continue to improve the lives of patients worldwide, his family urges the community to embrace The Samuel Rahbar Professorship in Diabetes & Drug Discovery.
“We feel the best way to honor our father’s memory is to assure that the work he loved and dedicated his life to, continues,” said Roya Rahbar-Pouldar.
“Near the end of his life, Dr. Rahbar developed compounds that hold great promise for the treatment of diabetes, as well as the cure of cancer, the illness that took his brother’s life,” added daughter, Guita Rahbar-Fouladian, M.D. “This is obviously not just important for honoring Dr. Rahbar’s memory. It’s also important for all of humanity.”
“Developing these compounds into medical treatments, as well as the rest of Dr. Rahbar’s projects requires resources,” reminds daughter Firoozeh Bakshian, D.D.S. “Our family is asking for the continued financial support of the community in this worthwhile project. We are confident that, together, we can make this professorship a reality,” she added.