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In Memoriam: Dr. Beth Levine was an international leader in autophagy research

Woman with short brown hair and gray jacket. Text reads Dr. Beth Levine, April 7, 1960 – June 15, 2020

Dr. Beth Levine, a Professor of Internal Medicine and Microbiology whose pioneering research identified the role of autophagy in the development of human diseases, died June 15 at her home in Dallas. She was 60.

Dr. Levine was Director of the Center for Autophagy Research and holder of the Charles Sprague Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Science. An Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute since 2008 and elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2013, Dr. Levine was an international leader in research on autophagy, a housekeeping process in which cells rid themselves of damaged constituents in order to maintain cellular health.

She was recruited to UT Southwestern in 2004 from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (now the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons) to become Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Jay P. Sanford Professor in Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Levine was best known for discovering the first mammalian autophagy gene, which she named beclin 1, and demonstrating that autophagy played a critical role in the determination of human health.

Over a span of two decades, her findings repeatedly deciphered the mysteries of the molecular pathways that were essential to cellular health and survival. Her laboratory identified conserved mechanisms underlying the regulation of autophagy and provided the first evidence that autophagy genes are important in antiviral host defense, tumor suppression, neurodegenerative diseases, lifespan extension, metazoan development, diabetes, and the beneficial metabolic effects of exercise. In addition, she developed a potent autophagy-inducing cell permeable peptide, Tat-beclin 1, which has been shown to have numerous potential therapeutic applications in a range of human diseases.

She was the Distinguished Lecturer from the Harvey Society in 2003 and received the Stanley J. Korsmeyer Award from the American Society for Clinical Investigation in 2014, the Phyllis T. Bodel Award from Yale University in 2018, and the Barcroft Medal from Queen’s University in Belfast in 2018.

“Her work opened up an entirely new field,” said research collaborator Dr. Michael Shiloh, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine and Microbiology. “Her 1999 research paper in Nature identified beclin 1 as the first known mammalian autophagy gene, described its action as a tumor suppressor linked to human breast cancer, and inspired a generation of autophagy researchers.” In 2003, she organized and chaired the first conference on autophagy, held at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Like her scientific contributions, Dr. Levine’s desire to elevate those with whom she worked made far-reaching and lasting impressions. She was greatly respected as a scientist and mentor to others, said Dr. Shiloh. “She was esteemed and valued as a physician-scientist who trained many graduate students and post-docs who have gone on to successful careers of their own. Indeed, one of her most remarkable traits was her ability to both challenge and support all those around her to reach their maximum potential.”

Cindy Jozefiak, a Senior Division Operations Administrator who began working with Dr. Levine in 2006, said she will be remembered as a brilliant, innovative, and inspiring woman and scientist who demanded the best from herself and the researchers she mentored. “She was very passionate not only about her science but also about her people,” she said.

Dr. Levine was beloved by her researchers and staff and treated them like family, celebrating birthdays at the office and throwing karaoke Christmas parties at her home, said Ms. Jozefiak.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, on April 7, 1960, Dr. Levine graduated magna cum laude from Brown University in 1981. She received her medical degree from Cornell University Medical College in 1986, followed by a residency in internal medicine at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

She was a postdoctoral fellow in infectious diseases and virology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine from 1989 through 1992 and worked as an Assistant Professor and then as an Associate Professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons until 2004.

Dr. Levine is survived by her husband, Dr. Milton Packer, a cardiologist and former Professor and Chair of the Department of Clinical Sciences at UT Southwestern, and two children.

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