Remembering renowned blood researcher Harold Roberts

This past weekend, long-time UNC School of Medicine professor Harold Roberts, MD, passed away. He and Kenneth Brinkhous developed the first highly purified factor VIII, which remains the primary therapy for people with hemophilia.

Remembering renowned blood researcher Harold Roberts click to enlarge Harold Roberts, MD

Harold Roberts, MD, formerly the Sarah Graham Keenan Professor of Medicine and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, was one of the world’s foremost experts in blood and clotting disorders, as well as a beloved teacher, mentor, and physician at the UNC School of Medicine. Dr. Roberts passed away over the weekend at the age of 87. He is survived by two sons, Eric and John, and two grandchildren, Carl and Alexandra. Dr. Roberts was preceded in death by his wife, Marilyn, earlier this year. 

“Dr. Roberts was a true giant in his field, a great mentor, and such an important member of the UNC School of Medicine community and the community of blood researchers around the world,” said Nigel Key, MB, CHB, FRCP, the Harold Roberts Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Pathology at the UNC School of Medicine and Director of the UNC Hemophilia and Thrombosis Center. “We will miss him greatly, and our hearts go out to his family and those closest to him.”

Dr. Roberts was born in Four Oaks, NC, and grew up in Sanford. He first came to UNC as an undergraduate, before earning his medical degree from the UNC School of Medicine as part of the first class to graduate from the newly expanded four-year program. When he presented the Berryhill Lecture in 2003, Dr. Roberts recalled that he had turned down a scholarship offer from Duke to attend UNC’s fledgling medical school.

After graduating from UNC, Dr. Roberts served an internship at Vanderbilt University Hospital. In 1956 he went to the University of Copenhagen as a Fulbright Scholar in experimental pathology, working under one of the leading experts in blood coagulation. He then rounded out his rigorous training with residencies in medicine at Vanderbilt and UNC, a fellowship in hematology at Vanderbilt, and fellowships in pathology and neurology at UNC.

Dr. Roberts joined the UNC faculty 1961 as a research associate, and just six years later was named chief of the division of hematology in the department of medicine, a position he held for a decade.

As a young scientist, Dr. Roberts worked with Dr. Kenneth Brinkhous and other luminaries of blood coagulation research at UNC. In 1965, Roberts, Brinkhous, and their colleagues developed the first highly purified concentrate of blood clotting factor VIII, the primary therapy for hemophilia. This development enabled patients to treat themselves at home.

Dr. Roberts’ contributions to hematology continued throughout his long career. In 1987, a UNC patient with hemophilia A became the first person in the world to be infused with recombinant factor VIII. The cell-based clotting assay he designed showed that clotting is initiated by tissue factor on the cells’ surrounding blood vessels. When a vessel breaks, the neighboring cells express a tissue factor that binds to and activates clotting factor VII in the blood. This work revised the generally accepted clotting theory of the day by showing that the clotting mechanism is localized at the site of bleeding.  

Many of his students have become leaders in hemophilia research. Tim Nichols, MD, the Director of the UNC Francis Owen Blood Research Laboratory, recalled a symposium honoring Dr. Roberts’ career, when Katherine High, MD, a world leader in hemophilia research who directs gene therapy projects, stated that Dr. Roberts was the first person she met who was “literate” in the topography of coagulation proteins. Specifically, he could talk knowledgably about how an amino acid at a specific position was essential to stop bleeding. She said his wealth of knowledge was her inspiration for choosing to pursue a career in hematology focusing on hemophilia research.

“I was a student of Dr. Roberts, and really anyone who worked with him also learned a lot from him,” said Nichols, a professor of medicine and pathology at UNC. “I’ll never forget the day Dr. Roberts was consulting on a patient I was taking care of. The patient had hemophilia complicated by inhibitors and was having a severe bleeding event. Dr. Roberts’ simply asked me why we couldn’t stop the bleeding. I couldn’t answer the question then and I can’t really answer it now, many years later. But because he asked me, I have spent these years trying to find the answer. And I think we will one day.”

Dr. Roberts was a charter member of the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis (ISTH) in the late 1960s, and in 1987 he became the first executive director of the society, a position he held until 1999. The society, which has more than 4,000 members from dozens of countries around the world, is still headquartered in Carrboro, NC. Since 2006, one recipient annually is selected by the ISTH to receive the Harold R. Roberts Medal for contributions to the Scientific and Standardization Committees. 

Dr. Roberts’ career was also remarkable for his clinical leadership at UNC. For 20 years, he served as director of the UNC Center for Thrombosis and Hemostasis, which he founded in 1978. He also served as director of the Clinical Coagulation Laboratory at North Carolina Memorial Hospital (now UNC Hospitals) and as director of UNC’s Comprehensive Hemophilia Diagnostic and Treatment Center.

Dr. Roberts received numerous awards for his achievements in hematology research, including the French International Prize for Research in Hemophilia, the Kenneth Brinkhous Award for Excellence in Clinical Research from the National Hemophilia Foundation, the American Society of Hematology’s Henry M. Stratton Medal, and both the Distinguished Career Award for Contributions to Hemostasis and the Grant Medal from the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis (ISTH). He was also the recipient of UNC School of Medicine’s Basic Science Teaching Award in 1965, and in 2000 he was presented the Medical Alumni Distinguished Faculty Award. In 2003, Dr. Roberts was selected as the Norma Berryhill Lecturer.

In a statement to faculty, Key and Lisa Carey, MD, the Richardson and Marilyn Jacobs Preyer Distinguished Professor in Breast Cancer Research and division chief of hematology and oncology, said, “Dr. Roberts was known as an exceptional physician and a perennial patient champion. He was a leader, mentor, counselor and scientific diplomat recognized internationally for his fairness, wisdom and devotion to the state and University of North Carolina. His legacy and impact are unparalleled and we will all miss him greatly.”

We will forward information regarding a memorial service for Dr. Roberts, as well as any specific requests from the family regarding donations, when information becomes available. 

Read a story at Endeavors magazine about UNC’s groundbreaking hemophilia research, including the story of George McCoy, who says he would not be alive if not for Dr. Roberts.

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