Kurt Saupe

Kurt Saupe

As published on the School of Medicine and Public Heath, University of Wisconsin-Madison website.

School of Medicine and Public Health Mourns Death of Kurt Saupe

Most scientists have experienced the race to publish exciting new lab results.

But Kurt Saupe, PhD '94, associate professor of medicine, wasn't racing another rival laboratory to publish research that may someday heal the hearts of people with heart disease.

Instead, his opponent was acute lymphoblastic leukemia or (ALL). This blood cancer is highly treatable in children, but is often fatal in adults. 

Saupe, 50, died Saturday June 23, so his research on creating a stem-cell patch for damaged heart tissue will likely be published posthumously. The lab, which also studies the effects of diet and aging on stem cells, has two papers ready for publication and two more "in the pipeline."

"The UW School of Medicine and Public Health has lost an accomplished researcher who was a central figure in cardiovascular science on campus and internationally," said Dr. Richard Moss, senior associate dean for basic research, biotechnology and graduate studies. "Kurt was a remarkably generous colleague and mentor and a leader among peers in heart failure research at Wisconsin. He went about each day with purpose and dry humor and a wonderful air of engagement-he will be missed greatly. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to Nancy and their children."

The Saupe lab has pioneered a process to use the fibroblast cells found in normal heart tissue, and culture them in the lab to create an extra-cellular matrix. The matrix can be used like a "bio-scaffold" to create a patch that is then populated with mesenchymal stem cells, which can generate heart tissue. The patch is then placed on the damaged area of the heart and has been shown to improve cardiac function in recent clinical trials.

This technology has the potential to impact not only cardioregenerative therapies but could have broader implications in the delivery of stem cells to other solid organ tissues.

"It seems to be panning out nicely," Saupe said, in an interview in late May, about his lab's work with animal models. "The patch binds to the heart tissue and the stem cells are being released into the heart tissue."

Saupe's death leaves many broken hearts in Madison. He is survived by his wife. Nancy Sweitzer, MD '93, PhD '94, a UW Health cardiologist, and their children, Geneva, 12, and Peter, 10.

Saupe, a Madison native, is the son of professor emeritus of agricultural economics William Saupe and his wife, Lorna. He's also survived by a close-knit group of friends from the James Madison Memorial High School class of 1980, where Saupe was a champion wrestler and track athlete. Many of his friends go back to his days at Glenn Stephens Elementary School.

"We started getting together regularly as a support group for Kurt after he was diagnosed (in 2007),'" says Deanna Heller of McFarland, a childhood friend. "Even though his body has been robbed from him, Kurt has handled this with such grace; he's never had a pity party for himself."

As an undergraduate, Saupe was a hurdler on the Badgers' 1984 Big Ten Conference championship track team. Steven J. Thompson (BA '84, JD '87), met Saupe in Cub Scouts and lived with him as an undergraduate at UW-Madison, and then again in Chicago, when the two also lived with UW-Madison alum Steve Levitan, BA '84, creator of the ABC television sitcom "Modern Family."

"Kurt is the most decent guy I know; he is the guy who is always taking care of everyone else," says Thompson, a partner in the firm Ungaretti and Harris in Chicago. "I always make decisions in my life based on, 'What would Kurt do?'"

Saupe holds a bachelor's degree in exercise physiology from UW-Madison, a master's degree in exercise physiology from Penn State and a doctoral degree in physiology from UW-Madison. He was on the faculty at Boston University before returning to Madison in 2001.

Dr. Jerry Dempsey, professor emeritus of population health, supervised Saupe's doctoral research and says Saupe "stood out as an insightful, independent thinker and an unselfish team player."

"Kurt was an exceptional teacher who found unique methods to clarify complex concepts and always showed the utmost respect for his students," Dempsey says. "This man accomplished a considerable amount in his professional life - but he literally had no ego. I am honored to have had the opportunity to serve as a mentor, colleague and friend to this extraordinary man."

When Saupe returned to the UW, he took over Dempsey's teaching duties with medical students and with undergraduates in the BIOCORE program.

"The UW gave me the scientific freedom to go where the data led, from studying coal-mine escape physiology, to the issue of mandatory retirement ages for firefighters, to sleep apnea, to heart metabolism and finally stem cells and making patches," Saupe said. "This all started when WARF offered me a one-year scholarship in the Dr. Jerry Dempsey lab to start my PhD."

Although his career was shortened by cancer, Saupe came full circle and his former graduate student, Dr. Eric Schmuck, is working with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) on patenting the recent work on creating a scaffold for heart stem cells.

After Saupe was diagnosed with cancer, he underwent a stem-cell transplant in May 2008. In Saupe's case, the stem cells came from bone marrow from an anonymous donor. He later learned that the donor was a young woman from Germany and corresponded with her via email.

"It worked for about a year and a half, but then the tumors returned," he said. Saupe praised his oncologist, Dr. Natalie Callender, and said he was pleased to have had more time with his young children. But he regretted that their last years together were shaped by the disease.

"I've been like this for five years," he said. "I'm not the father I wanted to be, running around and playing ball with them. This is pretty much the only way they've known me."

Instead, he has treasured the quiet family moments, when the dishes and homework are done, and the family can watch a movie together.

"There have been lots of very rich moments for me every day," he said.

Date Published: 06/25/2012