Dr. Sen-itiroh Hakomori couldn’t leave his lab work alone. He would often log 13-hour days, seven days a week, and even spend some time at his job on Christmas morning, intensely focused on his glycosphingolipid medical and biochemical research.
“I realized fairly recently that all of the cells are just like a pet. You have to check up on them and make sure that things are going well because they’re alive,” said his daughter Naoko Vaughn. “As children, we did not understand why he went to work every single day. I realized that he had to.”
Vaughn’s father, who she said had a heart of gold and would help anybody, died of natural causes at the age of 91 on Nov. 10 at his home on Mercer Island.
Roger Laine, a colleague and friend who was the last professor to visit Hakomori, said that he was truly a pioneering scientist in glycobiology, a field in which he spent seven decades participating in groundbreaking studies.
“He worked most of his career showing differences between cancer cells and normal cells that could be targeted for therapy. If you asked him what was his goal in life, he would answer, ‘cure cancer,’” said Laine, a professor, scientist and researcher at Louisiana State University.
Hakomori is survived by his wife, Mitsuko (they were married for 74 years); Vaughn; sons, Yoichiro and Kenjiro; four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; two brothers and a sister.
A native of Japan, professor Hakomori made crucial contributions to new cancer-cell studies at the Cancer Research Institute at Tohoku Pharmaceutical University, and continued his vast research in the field when the family immigrated to the United States to the Boston area.
The family moved from Boston to Bellevue in the late 1960s and set up their new home on Mercer Island 46 years ago. Hakomori relocated his family to the Pacific Northwest to become involved with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and served as University of Washington professor of pathobiology and professor of microbiology. He was named a UW professor emeritus of pathobiology and global health in 2006.
Hakomori retired at the age of 88, finishing his career working at the Pacific Northwest Cancer Center in Seattle. During a celebration in Japan three years ago, Hakomori — who was a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences — spoke to the attendees and noted, “We are all globally connected with research and science.”
His two sons reflected on their father’s vital contribution to their lives.
“Dad was passionate about his work and a great mentor to many of his younger colleagues. He has inspired me to try to emulate that passion in the work I do as an architect and professor,” said Yoichiro.
Added Kenjiro: “Dad taught me by example to work hard on trying to find out and work on resolving research questions — it is a lifelong passion.”
Vaughn added that her father instilled a high-level work ethic in his children, telling them, “Whatever you do, whatever you choose to do, whatever your passion is, you do it 120 percent.”
Hakomori made a worldwide impact with his research and was nominated five times for the Nobel Prize in chemistry. He received numerous awards, including the Philip Levine Immunohematology Award, the Karl Meyer Award from the Society of Glycobiology and the Rosalind Kornfield Award for Lifetime Achievement in Glycobiology.
He published 585 articles in peer-reviewed journals, and a pair of his many major scientific achievements were methylation analysis of glycoconjugates with mass spectrometry, and cell adhesion based on carbohydrate-carbohydrate interaction, particularly through GSL clusters at the embryonic stem cell surface.
“He was very honored in his work, and he did not do it for money. He was very much just trying to help, which is rare these days,” said Vaughn, adding that a host of his students and colleagues from around the world are assembling a memorial for her father to be published in a glycosphingolipid journal.
“He was just a wonderful person. I think the most important thing is his colleagues really admired him. He made them successful in their lives,” Vaughn added.
When Sarah Spiegel was a graduate student, she was drawn to Hakomori’s papers and reviews on the role of glycoconjugates in cancer. Those documents sparked her imagination and inspired her to pursue a career in sphingolipids, she wrote on the Evergreen Washelli Funeral Home & Cemetery memorial page.
“He was a champion of advancing careers of young female scientists and his generous spirit influenced my generation and generations to come,” said Spiegel, Ph.D., professor and chair in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. “His legacy will live on through the works of countless researchers who continue working in the field of sphingolipids and many colleagues throughout the world will miss him tremendously.”