A tribute to Dharam Ablashi

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Dharam Ablashi, a beloved scientist who has served as the scientific director of the HHV-6 Foundation since 2004. He was an internationally-recognized expert in herpesviruses, and was a co-discoverer of HHV-6.

Dharam was born and raised in India, and earned a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine there. He came to the United States in the early 1960’s and earned a Masters in Science degree at the University of Rhode Island, and then completed all of the necessary work for a Ph.D. However, he could not be awarded that degree because of a requirement that he be proficient in French and German. Nevertheless, he continued in a post-doctoral fellowship in virology.  In 2018, in recognition of his lifetime accomplishments in virology, the University of Rhode Island awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Dharam became an early expert on Marek’s disease virus, a herpesvirus of fowl that can produce both lymphoma and atherosclerosis. He complained later in life that he did so many biopsies of Marek’s disease tumors that he couldn’t eat chicken for decades.

In the late 1960’s, he began a long career at the National Cancer Institute. Initially, he was Head of the Primate Virus Section, Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Biology. In the mid-1980’s he worked with the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology directed by Robert C. Gallo.  It was there—in search of a herpesvirus that might be a cofactor in causing hematologic malignancies in patients with AIDS—that he became a co-discoverer of HHV-6. Later, he also isolated HHV-7, although Niza Frenkel’s laboratory did so as well, and was first to publish.

Dharam was the first to demonstrate that Herpesvirus saimiri was oncogenic in primates, and the first to show that H. saimiri could infect human cells. In the 1980’s, he advised NASA on the risk of astronauts developing a viral infection of H. saimiri from the squirrel monkeys that would be sharing the spaceship.

Following his years at NIH, Dharam became an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Microbiology at Georgetown University Medical School, and also the Director of Herpesvirus Programs at Advanced Biotechnologies in Columbia, MD.

After the discovery of HHV-6, Dharam played an absolutely central role in fostering studies of HHV-6A, HHV-6B and HHV-7. He co-organized 11 conferences on HHV-6 & 7. He generously shared reagents and laboratory techniques with other scientists. He later established a repository of infected cells, cell lines and monoclonal antibodies at the HHV-6 Foundation and persuaded virologists from around the world to contribute valuable reagents, which in turn has facilitated research on HHV-6A/B and HHV-7.

On being informed of Dharam’s passing, renowned virologist Bob Gallo said that, without Dharam and the work of the Foundation, the study of HHV-6A/B would have proceeded at “less than a snail’s pace.”

In addition to his work on HHV-6A/B and HHV-7, Dharam edited 13 books on herpesviruses, co-authored over 300 research papers and co-founded three non-profit foundations to support scientific research—including the EBV Association and the International Association for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. He has served as a consultant to institutions all over the globe, including the Malaysian government, the Pasteur Institute of Algeria, the Cancer Research Institute of South Korea and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine in Beijing. He was the recipient of Lifetime Achievement Awards from the HHV-6 Foundation and the EBV Association, and received the Rudy Perpich award from the IACFS/ME for outstanding science.

As remarkable as his scientific contributions were, Dharam’s personal attributes, particularly his modesty, his generosity, and the intensity that he brought to his work. Bob Gallo commented “I never knew anyone with a greater passion for his research and for helping others.”

Senior NIAID virologist Paolo Lusso described Dharam as “always there, like a ‘custodian angel’ of the HHV-6 community…always ready to jump in and help… ultimately, to help humanity.”  Wayne State Department Chair Phil Pellett said: “We have all lost a great friend and colleague.  Dharam was warm-hearted, friendly, curious, helpful, and visionary.  Some of his vision is revealed in the useful findings and observations that resulted from the many things he did to enable a plethora of collaborative international activities related to HHV-6 and its relatives.  He helped us build a community.”

Harvard Medical School’s Tony Komaroff remembered a meeting that Dharam could not attend because of illness. Instead, Dharam “attended” by video on a large computer monitor that moved around on wheels, allowing Dharam to talk to people. Tony recalled: “Many people spontaneously ended their conversation with Dharam by hugging the monitor. That’s not just high regard: that’s also deep affection.”

Paolo Lusso concluded: “Farewell, Dharam: you may be gone, but you will remain with us forever.”  Amen.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Dharam’s name International House of Rhode Island at this link.