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Jeffrey R. Peterson, longtime professor of cell biology at Fox Chase Cancer Center, pioneering researcher, and mentor, has died at 53

Innovative and tireless, he ran his own lab at Fox Chase and made important advances in the research and treatment of cancer. A colleague said: "He was brilliant."

Dr. Peterson liked to bike and hike, and he and his family traveled all over the world in search of adventure.
Dr. Peterson liked to bike and hike, and he and his family traveled all over the world in search of adventure.Read moreCourtesy of the family

Jeffrey R. Peterson, 53, of Cheltenham, longtime professor of cell biology at Fox Chase Cancer Center, pioneering researcher in chemical biology, volunteer, and mentor, died Monday, Jan. 2, of rectal cancer at his home.

Clever and creative, compassionate and dedicated, Dr. Peterson was an innovator in combining pharmacology and cancer cell biology to discover new ways to treat cancer. He joined Fox Chase in 2004, immediately became one of its leading researchers, and was awarded his own independent laboratory known as the Peterson Lab.

He and his colleagues went on to discover a new type of cellular fiber, identify novel ways to inhibit cancer-causing proteins, create a diet-based process of killing triple negative breast cancer cells, and generally advance cancer research and treatment to previously unthinkable success.

He earned a $1.4 million research grant from the U.S. Department of Defense in 2019 and a $50,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition in 2015. He won new microscopy lab equipment through BioTek Instruments’ Think Possible contest in 2014, and established productive relationships with many labs around the world.

Dr. Peterson published dozens of papers on why cancer cells migrate, how the immune system functions, and other medical issues, and one of his most groundbreaking writings on cancer-inhibiting drugs has been cited by other scientists nearly 1,000 times. “Jeff’s work was always innovative,” a colleague said. Jonathan Chernoff, director at Fox Chase, said: “He was also one of the best-liked people at our institution.”

Dr. Peterson was praised often for his comprehensive presentations, engaging writing, and endearing sense of humor. One colleague noted his “smiling determination to cure cancer,” and another said: “He always thought of things at a different slant than others. That was part of his creative genius.”

He was a champion of diversity and inclusion, advanced the careers of many of his postdoctoral research fellows, and occasionally performed science experiments for students at Abington Friends School. He volunteered with the Philadelphia-based eClose Institute’s student science projects and Fox Chase’s Immersion Science Program, working with Philadelphia high school students and teachers to identify and train future scientists who, like him, are committed to beating cancer.

Online tributes to Dr. Peterson flooded the internet after his death. “I am honored he was my friend,” a colleague said. A friend called him “one of the kindest people I met.” His wife, Beth Egan, said: “He was a unique individual with a deep capacity to be at peace, move forward and never be bitter. He lived every day to the fullest.”

Born April 17, 1969, in Knoxville, Tenn., Jeffrey Robert Peterson earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Swarthmore College in 1991. He completed a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Heidelberg’s European Molecular Biology Laboratory in 1992, received a doctorate in cell biology from Yale University in 1998, and finished a postdoctoral fellowship in cell biology at Harvard University in 2003.

He studied with renowned biochemists Ari Helenius at Yale and Marc Kirschner at Harvard, and met Egan in 1993 when they were both at Yale. They married in 2000, had daughter Sophie and son Oliver, and lived in Brookline, Mass., before moving to Cheltenham.

An avid outdoorsman, Dr. Peterson enjoyed snowboarding, snorkeling, biking, hiking, and photography. He liked board games and traveling to Walt Disney World, St. John Island, Europe, and elsewhere. In an online profile, he listed the 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest as his favorite book and crème brûlée as his ideal dessert.

“Jeff was smart, kind, and loved his family,” his father, Joe, said. His father’s wife, Lisa, said Dr. Peterson “left a lasting impression from the kindness he bestowed on everyone he met.”

In a tribute, his family said Dr. Peterson was “brilliant, easygoing, witty, funny, adventurous, accepting, optimistic, curious, generous, and patient.” His sister, Jenn George, said: “Jeff’s zest for life was contagious. He lived in the moment, and his love for music, theater, and travel inspired others to appreciate the same.”

His wife said: “As dedicated as he was as a scientist, he was as dedicated as a father. We had a blessed life.”

In addition to his wife, children, father, and sister, Dr. Peterson is survived by other relatives.

A celebration of his life was held Jan. 7.

Donations in his name may be made to the American Cancer Society, P.O. Box 6704, Hagerstown, Md. 21741.