RALEIGH (May 25, 2023) – At least 1 in 3 of us will experience cancer at some point in our lives. And a man who’s dedicated his life to fighting that scourge for millions of patients was recognized for it today.
The UNC Board of Governors awarded Dr. H. Shelton “Shelley” Earp, longtime director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, with the Gov. O. Max Gardner Award for faculty who “made the greatest contributions to the welfare of the human race.”
Earp embodies a rare fusion of the dispassion of a scientist and the passion of a crusader for humankind.
He first came to UNC-Chapel Hill as a medical student in 1966. After a tour in the Army medical corps, he returned to UNC in 1974 and joined the faculty in 1977.
“People don’t die from their original cancer,” he says in a video from PBSNC. “They die when cancer spreads.”
Earp’s research has thus focused on preventing the spread of breast, lung, pancreatic and prostate cancers, as well as leukemias and melanoma.
More recently, he has worked on “harnessing the human immune system” to manipulate patients’ T-cells that we learned about during the AIDS crisis to target and destroy cancer cells, he says.
IN HIS REMARKS to the Board of Governors, Earp detailed how his “laboratories” evolved from single-wide trailers along Manning Drive in Chapel Hill to an old tuberculosis hospital to what is now known as the North Carolina Basnight Cancer Hospital.
Over the years, he has brought together more than 400 faculty and staff to “have them be creative in every sphere,” he said. “They have thrived here because of the wonderful atmosphere.”
Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey said Earp’s work brings hope to North Carolinians from any background. Indeed, the late NC Senate leader Marc Basnight noted more than once how his late wife sat next to prison inmates in orange jumpsuits awaiting treatment at UNC Lineberger.
Earp has also gained international recognition, as renowned cancer scientist Dr. Lisa Carey says in the video, for “trans-disciplinary” research – bringing together researchers from different fields to attack a common problem.
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz cites Earp as an example of the “low stone walls” at the university to combine efforts from different disciplines.
Earp told the Board of Governors that he first heard in a college lecture 60 years ago about something called MRNA – something with which most of us have now been vaccinated.
That led to him wanting to become a scientist. But he also wanted to be a physician and care for patients.
And in a heartfelt tribute to his wife, Jo Anne Earp, a professor in the Gillings School of Global Public Health who died in November, he said: “Fifty years ago, I met this woman who introduced me to public health. She was my partner in everything I did.”
“You’re giving me an award,” he told the Board, “for doing something I love at a place that I love.”