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Fifty Years of Dedication and Innovation

December 9, 2023

Dr. Blanche Alter Receives the Wallace H. Coulter Award 

Wallace H. Coulter was a prolific inventor, innovator, and entrepreneur whose work revolutionized laboratory medicine and led to major breakthroughs in science, medicine, and industry. This award for Lifetime Achievement in Hematology, presented in his name, recognizes an individual who has demonstrated a lasting commitment to the field of hematology through outstanding contributions to education, research, and practice. Physician-scientist Blanche Alter, MD — whose innovative research has transformed the diagnostic and treatment landscape for cancer-prone inherited bone marrow failure syndromes (IBMFS) — is being recognized for her unwavering commitment to the field, including efforts focused on equal pay and equitable access to education that continue to inspire the next generation of women in medicine.  

Dr. Alter serves as a special volunteer of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), having retired from government in 2021. She is well known within her field for spearheading the first interdisciplinary clinical research program dedicated to investigating cancer-prone IBMFS such as Fanconi anemia (FA), dyskeratosis congenita (DC), Diamond-Blackfan anemia (DBA), and Shwachman-Diamond Syndrome (SDS), which has been invaluable in developing screening recommendations to detect cancer as early as possible and help patients live longer. Her research has also created a comprehensive body of knowledge about these disorders and their manifestations, diagnoses, and genetic causation and has become the model other researchers use to study the mechanisms of cancer development. Awards for her work in this realm include the 2009 National Institutes of Health Merit Award, 2014 Gluckman Lifetime Achievement Award, and 2014 National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Merit Award. 

Dr. Alter’s path to the top echelons of hematology was not without obstacles, and she has shattered glass ceilings along the way. As one of only five women in a class of 92 medical students, she recounted some of the barriers female colleagues faced having to complete their training — including less office space, lower pay, and unequal access to the opportunities awarded to some of their male peers. To achieve success, she said, “Women had to create their own advantages.”  

Dr. Alter has been no stranger to creating such advantages for herself and her trainees throughout her more than 50-year career. Hoping to achieve a career in which she could help to bridge the gap between bench and bedside, she pursued a pediatrics residency at Boston Children’s Hospital after graduating from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she developed her passion for hematology. She would go on to become the first researcher to prospectively investigate and quantify cancer rates in FA and DC through her groundbreaking pilot study and has published more than 375 peer-reviewed articles, books, and book chapters in her illustrious career. She is an actively sought-after national and international speaker, has given numerous invited presentations at ASH annual meetings, has served on a multitude of boards and committees, and has been an expert reviewer for nearly 50 journals.  

Dr. Alter also highlighted some of the shifts in hematologic research and practice over the past several decades that have continued to motivate her even in this phase of her career. “The expansion of knowledge of DNA has really sparked my interest is in the genetic aspects of diseases and mutations at the level of the DNA.” Recalling a time when her own epidemiology department did not have a microscope, she emphasized the need for modern hematology trainees to have a strong understanding and appreciation of genetics, cellular biology, epidemiology, and statistics. In addition to this multi-level perspective, she instills in her mentees a detail-oriented, patient-centric approach, offering direct feedback and a broad outlook on career development. Indeed, Dr. Alter’s trainees have gone on to achieve fulfilling careers in medicine, epidemiology, and other disciplines — often as chiefs at their respective institutions. Exemplifying her dedication to mentorship, she established an endowed scholarship fund at Johns Hopkins University in 2017, which offers merit-based financial aid to international students. 

Dr. Alter is a respected authority in her field and a beloved mentor to many early-career scientists. She has been a member of ASH for more than 50 years, having served on the Nominating Committee, Subcommittee on Hemoglobin/Red Cell (including a year as chair), and Publications Committee. The 2023 Wallace H. Coulter Award for Lifetime Achievement in Hematology will be awarded to Dr. Alter on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. in Hall A of the San Diego Convention Center. 

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