Remembering Andrew Glass, MD

Remembering Andrew Glass, MD

Pediatrician, oncologist, and scientist, Dr. Glass founded the Kaiser Permanente Northwest Oncology department and helped make the region’s tumor registry a key asset for research.

Andrew Glass, MD, a retired physician and Center for Health Research investigator with 45 years of service at Kaiser Permanente, died on November 16 in Portland, Oregon. The cause was glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer.

There will be a public memorial service for Dr. Glass at 11 a.m. on Jan. 13, 2018, at the World Forestry Center in Portland. An obituary and guestbook are available online.

This article about Dr. Glass’s life and contributions to science was adapted from an internal story written for Center for Health Research staff on the occasion of his retirement in late 2015.

Unrest, Migration, and a Path to Medicine

Andrew Glass, known to many as Andy, was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1939. After fleeing his home country in advance of the Nazis, he and his family landed in the lap of the Soviets, served time in a Siberian concentration camp, migrated to Iran, and eventually made their way to America, settling into a comfortable routine in New York.

Every night, when Andy’s father—a physician and professor of medicine—was done seeing patients in his clinical practice, he would walk upstairs to the family apartment and go right to work on his research papers. His intense work ethic, and the way he melded disciplines, left an enduring impression on the young boy.

“Watching my father instilled in me a very early interest in research—you could call it a lifelong orientation,” Dr. Glass once said. “When I went into medicine myself, my clinical perspective was deeply informed by research, and vice versa.”

Dr. Glass joined Kaiser Permanente Northwest in 1970 as a pediatrician and pediatric oncologist. In the years to follow, he founded the region’s Oncology department, drifted into adult oncology, served as director of physician research for Northwest Permanente, and was the driving force behind the expansion of the region’s tumor registry for research purposes. The KPNW registry includes cancer cases dating back to 1960 and continues to be a key asset for the Center for Health Research. 

Andrew Glass “From the beginning of my practice at Kaiser, I was determined to maximize our tissue resources for the general research community.”

Tapping the Potential of Our Biological Resources

“Tissue is like wine—the longer you keep it, the better it gets,” Dr. Glass said. “You can follow people for decades and see the impact of their original treatment on their subsequent health outcomes. From the beginning of my practice at Kaiser, I was determined to maximize our tissue resources for the general research community.

“I was fortunate to have a colleague at the National Cancer Institute who saw the same potential. We began providing surgeons and pathologists in the late 1970s (well before anyone else in Portland) with tanks of liquid nitrogen so they could easily save tissue samples from breast cancer biopsies for estrogen receptor measurement, a practice then just becoming important in breast cancer management. And because these samples were linked to health records in our integrated system, we were able to explore a number of important research questions.”

One such question, which became the basis of some of Dr. Glass’s most influential work, concerned the association between hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in post-menopausal women with the risk of breast cancer.

“Our integrated system made that research possible,” Dr. Glass recalled. “We combined mammography data from radiology, pharmacy data, and samples from pathology and found that use of HRT was strongly correlated with a higher incidence of breast cancer.  This study was only feasible because KPNW had all the needed data in one location and it was all linked by our powerful medical record—unique in Oregon and most of the U.S.”

There had already been a number of papers questioning the conventional wisdom that HRT was beneficial for women’s cardiovascular health. In fact, several clinical trials had been stopped after showing an association between HRT and cardiovascular events. By illuminating the connection between HRT and breast cancer risk, Dr. Glass’s research documented that a sharp decline in women’s use of HRT at KPNW to treat menopause symptoms correlated well with a decline in breast cancer rates. His findings earned him a spot on the front page of The Oregonian.

The media also took note of Dr. Glass’s research on what he called the “emerging epidemic of melanoma and superficial skin cancers—the consequences of sun worship.” A USA Today article included his wry advice that people wishing to avoid skin cancer should aspire to a “healthy pallor” rather than a healthy tan.

Keeping Busy in Volunteerism, Travel, and Retirement

Over the course of several years, Dr. Glass and his late wife made annual trips to India, where she taught at a rural school and he worked with hospital leaders to set up hospital-based cancer registries. He demonstrated that these registries could succeed, but keeping them maintained in his absence proved to be a considerable challenge.

“Being in India provided a very interesting perspective on the rest of the world,” Dr. Glass said. “I don’t like just being a tourist—I like to keep busy. I was fortunate to have grants from the World Health Organization and volunteer opportunities which gave me a chance to do that.”

Dr. Glass also volunteered closer to home. For 10 years, he served as a Health Services Commissioner for the state of Oregon, including several years as the head commissioner. The commission was tasked with managing the prioritization list of covered treatments under the Oregon Health Plan.

After 45 years at KPNW, Dr. Glass retired at the end of 2015. For Investigator Sheila Weinmann, who worked with Dr. Glass since she was a PhD student at the University of Washington, the importance of his contribution to KP research cannot be overstated.

“He was the one who saw what a gold mine our tissue resources could be for research,” Dr. Weinmann said. “We now have a well-established system for studying cancer at the molecular level, and it’s because of Andy Glass’s vision and hard work.”

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