Stanford Medicine oncology professor Shoshana Levy dies at 83

Shoshana Levy discovered a family of molecules called tetraspanins, launching a new field of cancer research. She was an active researcher, collaborator and mentor at Stanford Medicine for nearly three decades.

- By Krista Conger

Shoshana Levy

Shoshana Levy, PhD, a professor of oncology, died Nov. 16 with her family by her side after developing metastatic cancer. Levy had been a professor at Stanford Medicine since 1994, and she held her last lab meeting by Zoom just days before her death. She was an active member of the Stanford Cancer Institute and of Bio-X.

In 1990, Levy identified a new family of proteins called tetraspanins that span the cell membrane and affect how cells send and receive signals to interact with other cells, move and divide. Since their discovery, they’ve been implicated in cancer metastasis and may be a target for cancer therapies. In 2000, Levy launched a recurring international scientific meeting on tetraspanins, and she presented her latest research on their role in cancer metastasis at that meeting in Prague in September, just prior to her diagnosis.

“Shoshana was consummate researcher and an engaging and generous collaborator and mentor of younger scientists,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “Her discovery of tetraspanins spawned a new field of cancer research. Her sudden loss is felt deeply at Stanford Medicine and internationally.”

Levy, who was known as Shosh to her friends and colleagues, was also active on the Stanford Cancer Institute’s scientific review committee, which assesses clinical research protocols for scientific merit prior to approval.

“Although not a clinician herself, Shosh took a keen interest in the science that should inform the best clinical studies and invariably asked the most penetrating questions,” said Beverly Mitchell, MD, the George E. Becker professor of medicine and former director of the cancer institute. “Her research on developing new immunotherapies for invasive breast cancer based on a novel surface marker she had studied in the lab made her the ideal person to critically evaluate the ideas of others, and she indeed took that role to heart.”

Levy was married to professor of oncology Ronald Levy, PhD, the Ronald K. and Helen K. Summy Professor. They worked side by side in neighboring labs for decades.

“Their professional and personal partnership was inspirational to all who knew them as they raised a wonderful family and made important scientific discoveries in side-by-side labs, always together,” said Heather Wakelee, MD, professor of medicine and chief of the division of oncology.

Israeli beginnings

Levy was born in Israel in 1939 and raised in Tel Aviv, where she was active in the Israeli youth movement Hashomer Hatzair and became a keen amateur botanist determined to catalog all the country’s indigenous plants. After serving in the Israeli Defense Force from 1957 to 1959, Levy earned her bachelor’s in biology from Tel Aviv University, a master’s in biology from the Weizmann Institute of Science — where she met her husband — and a PhD in biochemistry from Tufts University.

Levy first came to Stanford as a research fellow for a year in 1972 and returned as a senior research associate from 1975 to 1979, when she left for a position at SRI International in Menlo Park. She returned to Stanford as a senior research scientist in 1984; in 1994, she was appointed professor of medicine in the oncology division — a position she held until her death. From 1995 to 2000 she was an associate editor for the Journal of Immunology.

Levy enjoyed the opera and the symphony, was passionate about nature and enjoyed traveling. The family recalls that she and Ron were known for spending all their time together, hosting meals for family and colleagues, donning fabulous Halloween costumes and always being the last ones on the dance floor.

Levy was also a strong supporter of women in science. She was the chair of the Katharine McCormick Advanced Postdoctoral Scholarship to Support Women in Academic Medicine committee and was a mentor for the Palo Alto chapter of the Association for Women in Science for many years. She also served as an advisor for Stanford University freshmen and an interviewer for the Stanford University Medical Admissions process.

“Shoshana was an engaged colleague, generous collaborator and outstanding mentor with a warm heart and amazing smile,” Wakelee said. “She will be greatly missed.”  

Besides her husband, Levy is survived by daughters Tali Levy, Naomi Levy and Karen Levy and by six grandchildren. The family suggests donations in her memory to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel or to the Association for Women in Science.

About Stanford Medicine

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