Michael Christman, 58, a genomics expert who championed personalized medicine as president and CEO of the Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Camden, died on Christmas.
He was visiting his father, Russell, in Chapel Hill, N.C., for the holidays with his 16-year-old twins, Max and Emma. Dr. Christman was an insulin-dependent diabetic but seemed to be in good overall health, his father said.
“He went to bed about 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve. He wasn’t feeling well,” Russell Christman said. “We guess it was his heart.”
Coriell, which collects, banks, and distributes biological samples for medical research, praised Dr. Christman for building the institute’s mission “through his commitment to innovation and excellence.”
“The importance of Dr. Christman’s impact not only on the Coriell Institute but personalized medicine as a whole cannot be overstated,” said Robert Kiep, chairman of the board of trustees. “His death is a terrible loss.”
Born in Florida and raised in Chapel Hill, Dr. Christman initially followed in the footsteps of his father, a chemistry professor, by earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina and his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley.
But during five years of postdoctoral research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Christman expanded into genetics, the science that underpins personalized medicine. He went on to serve as the founding chair of the department of genetics and genomics at Boston University School of Medicine, where he led an international team that used the Framingham Heart Study to find a common genetic variant associated with obesity. The findings were published in the journal Science.
“He was a person everyone liked,” his father said. “He talked science at the level of whoever he was talking to. When he left Boston after founding that department, I was awfully proud of what he had done. When he told me he was going to Coriell, I said, ‘What?’ But he said it was a wonderful opportunity.”
After becoming Coriell’s chief executive in 2007, Dr. Christman created the Coriell Personalized Medicine Collaborative, a research study focused on integrating patients’ genetic information into their medical care. The project now involves more than 10,000 participants in 48 states, hospital partners, and physicians, and has won more than $15 million in federal grants.
The success of the collaborative led Dr. Christman to found a for-profit spin-off company, Coriell Life Sciences. It provides a medication management tool that analyzes the patient’s genetic makeup to understand individual responses to medications. The company has received honors including the IBM Entrepreneur of the Year award.
Dr. Christman remained committed to Coriell’s core mission as a biobank, working to establish one of the world’s largest collections of human “induced pluripotent stem cells.” These cells, which are made by reprogramming skin or blood cells back to primitive stages, have become valuable tools in disease research and drug development.
“He was a genius at this,” said Kiep. “If we can find someone who fills 50 percent of his shoes, we’re doing good.”
Besides his father and children, Dr. Christman is survived by two brothers and his ex-wife, Nikki Levin.
Coriell Institute is planning a memorial service.