Robert Blumenthal: More than 40 Years at FNL

By Carolynne Keenan, Guest Writer
Portrait of Robert Blumenthal

Robert Blumenthal, Ph.D., retired in May 2012 after more than 40 years at NCI; he served as director of the Center for Cancer Research Nanobiology Program during his last seven years at FNL.

By Carolynne Keenan, Guest Writer

Robert Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a nanotechnology and cell membrane expert at Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research (FNL)—just as you would imagine someone with more than 40 years of experience in biomedical research would be.

Blumenthal started his career as a principal investigator (PI) at NCI in Bethesda, but since 1997, he has called FNL (formerly NCI-Frederick) his home.

Over the years, Blumenthal has worked with a number of world-renowned scientists, either academically or at NIH. He began his career at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases working under the tutelage of Terrell Hill, Ph.D., a well-known theoretical physical chemist.

After a year stint with Hill, Blumenthal was recruited into NCI’s Mathematical Biology Laboratory, led in succession by Mones Berman, Ph.D., and Jacob Maizel, Jr., Ph.D., who both pioneered the use of computers in biology. Maizel, who foresaw the information explosion that arose as a result of gene sequencing, was instrumental in setting up the Advanced Biomedical Computing Center at FNL. “At that point we became the Lab of Experimental and Computational Biology since we had PIs join us who bridged both disciplines,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal, who, from the outset of his career, studied cell membranes both theoretically and experimentally, then set up his laboratory at FNL, which focused on viral entry—particularly HIV entry—into cells.

The Beginning of the Nanobiology Program

In 2005, Maizel retired and leadership changed. Blumenthal took the initiative to create the Nanobiology Program at NCI, “with the aim to study structure, function, and design of biomolecules, and their assemblies at the nanoscale,” Blumenthal wrote in an e-mail. “To make progress in the understanding of biological processes, in particular HIV fusion/entry, we need to develop more advanced nanoscale methodologies.”

He was given the potentially daunting task of bridging the gap between pure theoretical models and the experimental aspect. The Nanobiology Program comprises a variety of science research experts with varying years of experience in their fields, bringing diverse backgrounds and knowledge. “Many of these [researchers] have made their mark on their own fields of endeavor,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal explained how he combined his interest in cell membranes with investigating on the nano level. “My interest is in figuring [out] how lipid-based nanoparticles can deliver a payload by the process of fusing the membranes with that of a cell.”

His laboratory in the Center for Cancer Research (CCR) works closely with several of the newly expanded laboratories at the Advanced Technology Research Facility (ATRF), and he credits NCI and CCR leadership for encouraging the development of the Nanobiology Program. “Everybody recognizes its potential,” Blumenthal explained. “NCI has grabbed hold of the potential to see how nanotechnology can be applied to the field of biomedical research.”

With all of the cutting-edge research Blumenthal has been involved in, you might not think he would have time for much else. He retired on May 31 but was rehired on a part-time basis to help the Nanobiology Program transition under its new leadership.

Spending Time with Family

When he’s not at the forefront of groundbreaking research, you can find Blumenthal spending time with his family—including nine grandchildren. “It’s, of course, fun to spend time with them because you can go back to being a child yourself,” he said.

It’s no surprise that one of Blumenthal’s three children would end up in science. His son Gideon, Ph.D., an oncologist/hematologist, is employed at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration but does spend time working at the Clinical Center in Bethesda. Both Blumenthals were at NCI when Gideon was a clinical fellow in the Medical Oncology Branch.

Also in his free time, Blumenthal enjoys researching his genealogy. He was born in Indonesia and has lived, studied, and traveled all over the world. During a recent trip to Indonesia, Blumenthal’s other son, Daniel, who works in Southeast Asian policy, found his father’s childhood home.

Eventually, Blumenthal would like to create a documentary based on photos and memories of his family. His daughter, Daphne, an expert in web design, could help with this living history project.

Carolynne Keenan is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Scientific Operations, FNL.