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In memoriam: Former faculty member Claudio Conti, DVM, PhD

April 08, 2020
Gillian Kruse, MD Anderson communications

Claudio Conti, DVM, PhD, former GSBS faculty member and distinguished senior lecturer, and former professor of Molecular Carcinogenesis at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, passed away April 3 in Madrid. He is remembered as a committed mentor and dedicated scientist with a great sense of humor. He was 73.

Conti received his veterinary degree in 1968 and a PhD in biological sciences in 1983 from the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina. He began his scientific career as a research assistant studying radiobiology and cancer at the National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA) of Argentina before completing a postdoctoral fellowship in pathology at the University of Colorado.

Conti joined MD Anderson’s Science Park campus in Smithville as an assistant professor in 1983 and became a GSBS faculty member in 1984. He rose through the ranks to associate professor in 1987 and professor in 1993, as well as spending multiple years as associate director of Science Park. In addition to his research, he was also very involved in our Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, serving as a mentor to dozens of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and teaching many courses. Conti retired from MD Anderson in 2008 and was a GSBS distinguished senior lecturer until 2012.

His colleagues and former trainees recall his dedication to mentorship and creating a lab environment that was conducive to learning.

“The lab was very relaxed in some ways,” recalls Nora Navone, MD, PhD, GSBS faculty member and professor, Genitourinary Medical Oncology Research. “He would let you be yourself while you worked, but would always provide the right insight at the right time to help you grow as a scientist.”

Conti enjoyed connecting with everyone he met, says Marcelo Aldaz, MD, GSBS faculty member and professor, Epigenetics and Molecular Carcinogenesis. He remembers how he usually took the time to eat lunch with all of his lab members.

Having a relaxed nature also let his sense of humor show.

“He was very funny and good-humored,” says Fernando Benavides, DVM, PhD, GSBS faculty member and professor, Epigenetics and Molecular Carcinogenesis. “His lab meetings always started with a joke – he never took himself too seriously.”

Conti’s good nature meant that for many he wasn’t just a mentor, he was a good friend. Colleagues remember his generosity and willingness to help others and contribute for the well-being of the department.

“He was a great teacher and was always in good spirits,” remembers Aldaz. “He was very loved by his friends here and abroad in Argentina.”

Conti dedicated much effort to education, both for pre and postdoctoral students, and teaching classes for undergraduate students in the fields of cancer, anatomy, histology, pathology, and biology. During his long career, he mentored numerous PhD students, postdoctoral fellows and was member of countless GSBS advising committees. Many of his mentees currently occupy important positions in academia, industry and government in the U.S., Argentina and Spain.

“Claudio and his wife were generous in welcoming and supporting mentees coming from abroad as they settled into being in a new country,” says Navone. “I remember sharing many Christmas and holidays with his family and some other members of his lab, and I will always be grateful to him.”

An accomplished scientist, he’s also remembered for his impact on cancer research. Conti authored more than 300 peer-reviewed scientific publications with more than 10,000 citations. He also wrote more than 25 book chapters and edited two books. Throughout his career he received numerous grants from the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society, the U.S. Department of Defense, and many private foundations.

His legacy includes the development of mouse models for the study of skin, prostate and breast cancer, in the areas of carcinogenesis, tumor promotion and progression, and molecular biology of the cell cycle.  Among his many scientific contributions, Dr. Conti and his group made the seminal observation on the non-random nature of specific chromosomal copy number alterations (trisomies) early in the progression of epithelial tumors. They demonstrated the key relevance in premalignant lesions progression for the selection of extra copies of chromosomes bearing activated Ha-Ras alleles as a clear example of the Darwinian evolution towards malignancy.  Another contribution was the discovery that p53 gene mutation is a late event in the progression of prostate cancer to a castrate-resistant, metastatic phenotype.

Outside of his work as a scientist, Conti enjoyed traveling and was known for his love of music and art, especially the Argentine tango. He was a self-taught bandoneon player and performed with tango ensembles in the Austin area.

“He was a great scientist but with a deep appreciation of art and music,” says Navone. “You could always have enriching conversations with him about life.”

Benavides agrees. “Claudio was a very smart guy, and you could talk about anything with him. He didn’t just know science, he enjoyed art, history and music, too.”

He will be remembered as a very special person by all who worked with him. His colleagues note that he was a citizen of the world, versed in music (from Bach to Tango), literature, politics and more. His scientific and personal honesty, informality, open-mindedness and sense of humor will be remembered by all his associates and friends who will miss this exceptional person and scientist.

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