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ICR mourns leading molecular biologist Alan Hall, 1952–2015

Professor Alan Hall, a key figure in the development of molecular oncology at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, died suddenly in New York on 3 May. 

Alan was one of the first people recruited by Professor Robin Weiss on his appointment as Director in 1980, with the aim of bringing modern methods of molecular biology into the ICR’s research. 

A skilled molecular biologist Alan had trained in the laboratories of pioneers of recombinant DNA technology Ken Murray and Charles Weismann. 

Soon after arriving at the ICR, Alan suggested to Chris Marshall that they work together to clone human oncogenes. This resulted in the cloning of the human NRAS oncogene in 1983, the third human oncogene to be cloned. It was the first step in the ICR’s entry into the field of molecular oncology. 

Studying RAS then became a focus of Alan’s lab but a key event came when he decided to start work on a recently discovered family of RAS-related proteins, the RHO family of small GTPases, whose function was unknown. 

These studies made use of the cell microinjection and microscopy skills of Hugh Paterson, and the technical assistance of Annette Self and PhD student Michelle Garrett, joined by postdoctoral fellow Anne Ridley. 

The research culminated in two seminal papers showing that RHO-family GTPases linked growth factor signalling to specific actin rearrangements in the cytoskeleton.

This work was revolutionary, since different types of actin assembly underlie much of cell biology. 

Each of these papers has been cited more than 3,000 times and they were responsible for initiating a whole new field of molecular cell biology with an impact on cancer, developmental biology and neurobiology. 

In 1993 Alan decided it was time to leave the ICR and he took up a position in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Cell Biology at UCL, becoming the Director in 1995. 

This was another extraordinarily productive period of research with key studies on the role of the RHO family GTPases in cell polarity and phagocytosis. 

In 2006 Alan was recruited to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre to head the Division of Cell Biology. At Memorial Sloan Kettering he continued his work on cell polarity and epithelial morphogenesis. 

Alan’s work was recognised by a long list of honours including the Novartis Medal of the Biochemical Society, the Gairdner International Award and the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences and a member of EMBO. 

Alan Hall was characterised by a rigorous intellectual approach paired with a warm and generous spirit. He asked incisive questions of himself and others. His sage advice meant he was sought after as a member of review and grant panels. 

Alan believed in putting as much back into science as he got out. He devoted much time and effort into developing the careers of young scientists and acting as a mentor. He also served on several editorial boards and was Editor in Chief of the Journal of Cell Biology. 

Alan’s family and many friends in the field of molecular cell biology will sorely miss him.
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