Janice ‘Wes’ Brown, infectious disease researcher and physician, dies at 63

Brown developed stem-cell therapies for patients who suffered infections after receiving blood or bone marrow transplants.

- By Mark Conley

Wes Brown

Janice “Wes” Brown, MD, a professor of blood and marrow transplantation who innovated stem-cell therapies for immunocompromised patients and helped put them into clinical use, died of endometrial cancer April 14. She was 63.

Brown’s research focused on patients who were at risk of life-threatening infections after a bone marrow transplant, solid organ transplant or other forms of cancer treatments leading to immunodeficiency. Her commitment, as both a scientist and clinician, to ease suffering and extend the lives of at-risk patients stood out to colleagues.

“Wes Brown epitomized the relentless initiative that makes Stanford Medicine a pillar of hope for so many,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine and vice president for medical affairs at Stanford University. “In the lab, she was instrumental in developing vital therapies for some of our most vulnerable patients, and in the clinic, she showed her compassionate approach to administering these therapies.”

“Wes was a remarkable person,” said Irving Weissman, the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor in Clinical Investigation in Cancer Research. Brown had so impressed him as an inquisitive rookie researcher in his lab in the early 2000s that he came to her for assistance when his mother was recovering from uterine cancer surgery.

“She wasn’t doing well after surgery, so I called Wes,” Weissman said. “She caught on to what was happening immediately and set her on a new regimen.” Weissman’s mom returned to her home in Montana — and to good health — and lived another 20 years. “I owe my mom’s life to Wes,” he added. “She was just that brilliant of a puzzle solver.”

A nose for discovery

In her freshman dormitory as a Stanford University undergrad, someone told Brown that she looked like a Wes, and rather than arguing or taking offense, she ran with it. “Janice never really fit her anyway,” said her good friend Helen Benedetti.

Brown was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, and grew up in suburban Washington, D.C.  Her parents were both physicians who immigrated from China for their post-doctoral training. Her husband, Andrew Hoffman, MD, professor of endocrinology, said that watching her parents live out lives in medicine likely provided the early inspiration that pulled her curious mind in a similar direction.

Wes Brown and Andrew Hoffman at the 2023 Big Game.
Courtesy of Andrew Hoffman

Brown received her undergraduate degree at Stanford in 1981, then attended medical school at the University of Virginia. She returned to Stanford for her residency in internal medicine. After a stint as an infectious disease clinical fellow and a fellowship in virology in the lab of Ed Mocarski, then professor and chair of microbiology and immunology, she took notice of the work being done with blood-forming stem cells at Weissman’s lab. Soon she was part of it, and that fellowship forged an important path.

She focused on creating stem-cell therapies for three specific types of life-threatening infections faced by immunocompromised patients coming out of blood or bone marrow transplantation. She studied what Weissman’s lab had already established in mouse models and disentangled the mechanisms for skirting the three most lethal pathogens — one bacterial, one fungal, one viral — that faced immunocompromised human patients.

“She did it for three major kinds of infections — with definitive results,” Weissman said. “That hardly ever happens, especially with someone coming in from the world of infectious disease with no experience in blood-forming stem cells.”

Brown had immersed herself in the scientific literature on the three conditions, formed hypotheses on how to attack each, then published papers that turned out to be prescient. “How she predicted it would go is exactly how it went,” Weissman said.

She later joined Weissman at a commercial startup for attacking the dangerous infection cytomegalovirus with research on hematopoietic stem cells. She even continued her lab research after joining the faculty in the blood and marrow transplantation and cellular therapy division, pursuing clinical research dissecting the immune cells that control cytomegalovirus and other viral pathogens.

Hoffman recalled how Brown was able to patent a stem cell therapy and get the therapy through a phase 2 clinical trial. But part of her research passion stemmed from the practical applications she could take into action herself — and that’s where she turned next.

The puzzle solver

Brown volunteered to do clinical rounds with the blood and marrow transplantation program of the late Karl Blume, MD, and started to learn more about how infectious disease attacked the most critically ill patients. She continued that frontline work with immune deficient patients by joining the Bone Marrow Transplant and Cellular Therapy Program faculty, and later helped co-found Stanford Medicine’s Immunocompromised Host Infectious Diseases Clinic.

But, ever the problem solver, Brown wanted to keep one eye on the bigger research needs, Hoffman said. While still making daily rounds with patients, she conducted clinical trials for antiviral drugs and antibiotics and set up protocols for treating immunocompromised patients.

“She had the perfect background of virology and cell biology to do this work,” Hoffman said. “And it was her passion. She looked at a patient’s illness as a puzzle that she had to solve. And she would do anything she could to make sure that she had the right diagnosis. She was tenacious.”

Weissman marveled at the complete career puzzle Brown pieced together. “How often does someone get to make a discovery and then go put it to use?” he said. “To help people live who would’ve died? That’s what she did.”

The Hoffman-Brown family, at Sierra Family Camp (left to right): Andy, Jacob, Samantha, Wes and Zach. 
Courtesy of Andrew Hoffman

Hoffman recalls his wife frequently making house calls for severely ill patients, knowing she could help extend their lives, or at least bring them comfort. “She was an iconoclast — she wasn’t afraid to make a bold diagnosis that others might not,” he said.

When her good friend and colleague Judith Shizuru, MD, professor of blood and marrow transplantation and cellular therapy, was struggling with a difficult case, Brown was always her first call.

“She would really dig into the details, think outside the box, and she could reach into her own understanding,” Shizuru said. “She could guide you as if she was a third eye. I’ve never encountered another clinician like her. It takes insights, smarts and a real sense of boldness.”

It also helped that she was fully grounded in life — whether inside the lab or clinic, or at home. Weissman remembers what she did for his mother during her recovery from cancer, and how she approached the life-threatening riddles facing so many others.

“She was the kind of doctor who considered the lives of others just as important as her own family,” he said. “And if they’re like your family, you’re not going to stop until you figure it out.”

The mom in the stands

Shizuru still doesn’t understand how Brown and Hoffman did what they did as full-time researchers and clinicians and as parents. “Two working physicians who somehow made it to every one of their kids’ events,” she said. “She was the mom always in the stands, the one who brought the Gatorade.”

Hoffman said his wife had a unique ability to apply multiple passions simultaneously. “From virology to immune cells to the clinical care and research — she loved them all,” Hoffman said. “But most of all she loved being a mother.”

At home on bed rest during her first pregnancy, Brown managed to work on her stem cell research papers. Then she homeschooled the twins until fourth grade while continuing her research.

“While she was bringing this incredibly important science to bear in my lab, she was also homeschooling her twins,” Weissman said. “I have no idea how she did all that — and did it so well. But that was Wes.”

She was in the stands even as the kids got older — at her son Jacob’s Stanford baseball games, at the lacrosse matches of her daughter Samantha and her son Zach, at every Stanford sporting event she could get to.

“She was a very enthusiastic and very loud Stanford fan,” Hoffman said. Jacob was able to get the whole family field passes for last November’s Big Game against Cal — exactly the type of gathering “that made her really happy,” Hoffman said.

Brown was treating patients during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when a routine exam uncovered the cancer. She underwent surgery and numerous rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. She and Hoffman spent January through March in Boston at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, hunkered down and enduring a phase 1 clinical trial.

“We researched everything we could — she wasn’t going to give up,” Hoffman said. “Till the end, when she would be hospitalized, and she’d learn the life story of every nurse who took care of her.”

She was a unique person, and her loss is so tough to grieve. It leaves a big hole.

Benedetti was a blood and marrow transplant nurse who recalls bonding with Brown over their mutual commitment to work and family. She remembers her as a selfless nurturer who always made time to listen, never looking for the spotlight herself. That was saved for those closest to her. “Family was everything to her,” she said. “Wes was a brilliant, humble, loving, family-oriented person.”

Brown’s biggest disappointment was that she was too ill to return to work after the cancer diagnosis. But she wasn’t about to miss out on the landmark family moments that remained.

She was there for Samantha’s wedding in Los Gatos, California, in the spring and then at her PhD defense at Harvard University. Recently, the whole family spent a weekend at Sierra Family Camp at Fallen Leaf Lake in the Lake Tahoe basin — a Stanford tradition they had enjoyed for years when the kids were growing up. 

“That was so important to her — and she hung in there,” Shizuru said. “She was a unique person, and her loss is so tough to grieve. It leaves a big hole. It’s painful.”

Hoffman knows. He said he has a hard time accepting the death of his wife so early. “She was only 63 — she had so much more life to live,” he said. But he draws comfort in the immense legacy she leaves behind. It’s everywhere he looks.

“She was known and loved by so many people,” he said. “I never realized how many people she touched.”

Brown is survived by her husband, Andy Hoffman, and their children — Samantha, Jacob and Zachary Hoffman.

Gifts in memory of Brown can be made at memorial.stanford.edu or by sending a check payable to Stanford University and mailed to Medical Center Development, 485 Broadway, University Hall, 4th Floor, Redwood City, CA 94063. Please indicate on the online form or check that the gift is in memory of Dr. Wes Brown.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

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