Nathan Berger, founding director of Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, dies at 83

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Nathan Berger, professor of medicine, biochemistry, oncology, and genetics; the Hanna-Payne Professor of Experimental Medicine; the director of the Center for Science, Health, and Society; and a Distinguished University Professor at Case Western Reserve University, died on June 15. He was 83. 

Nathan Berger

During his 41-year career at CWRU, Berger directed the Hematology/Oncology Division of CWRU’s School of Medicine; founded and directed the CWRU/Ireland Cancer Center that was awarded Cancer Center status in 1987 by NCI and subsequently designated an NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center; served as dean of the CWRU School of Medicine from 1995 to 2002; co-directed the Specialized Program on Research Excellence in Gastrointestinal Malignancies; coordinated pilot projects and career development programs for the Barrett’s Esophagus Research Network; and served as a mentor, teacher, and role model. 

In 1983, Berger became chief of a new division of hematology-oncology in the department of medicine at University Hospitals and CWRU and developed its first training program. He later inspired the Scientific Enrichment Opportunity program. He applied for and received multiple rounds of NCI funding for Youth Enjoy Science—the most recent funding request scoring a perfect 10. These summer programs attract 80 to 100 greater Cleveland middle- and high-school students annually. 

“Dr. Berger’s YES summer program has profoundly impacted the education of students from our underrepresented community in cancer medicine,” Gary Schwartz, Case CCC director, said in a statement. “It is just one part of his legacy as our first Case CCC director.”    

When asked about his passion for these programs, Berger once said, “If we have more underrepresented minorities in the profession, we will have greater creativity in cancer research and health care. More diversity is going to help reduce health disparities and achieve health equity.  The first hope [for each student participant] is for a successful future. We want them to become successful healthcare professionals. The second hope is that some of them will come back to Cleveland so that we can develop a community of scholars to promote health equity here.”

Nathan Berger, Sanford Markowitz, and Stanton Gerson after receiving Case Western Reserve University Distinguished University Professor awards. 
Stan Gerson, Gary Schwartz, Nate Berger and James Willson
Case Comprehensive Cancer Center directors, past and present (from left): Stan Gerson, Gary Schwartz, Nate Berger, and James Willson.
Photo credit: Dale McDonald

Berger’s early career work focused on laboratory and translational aspects of poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase, DNA repair, stress proteins, and developmental therapeutics. He later explored transdisciplinary studies in energy balance and cancer and critical aspects of the relationship between aging and cancer. Most recently, the Berger Lab has been studying energy balance, obesity, and cancer, including the impact of obesogenic diets on the development of Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal adenocarcinoma.  

Berger was a community advocate, serving on the board of directors of Care Alliance, a Federally Qualified Health Center, providing health care for underserved communities; Hopewell, a therapeutic farm community for adults with mental illness; and the Cuyahoga County Board of the American Cancer Society. 

His contributions to oncology have been immense, marked by groundbreaking research, compassionate patient care, and unwavering commitment to advancing medical science. 

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