Rolf Stahl, MD
February 25, 2023
Rolf Stahl, senior professor at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, passed away unexpectedly on February 25, 2023. Throughout his scientific career, Rolf Stahl dedicated his efforts toward advancing our understanding of the pathogenesis of immune-mediated kidney diseases with a particular focus on membranous nephropathy. Many of his discoveries and contributions to the field have directly translated to improvements in patient care.
Rolf Stahl was born in 1948 and raised in Baden Wurttemberg, Germany. He studied medicine at the University of Stuttgart-Hohenheim and Tubingen in southern Germany. After fellowship training in pathology in Tubingen, he received a Buswell Fellowship at the Department of Medicine, State University of Buffalo, New York, where he studied the role of prostaglandins and the renin-angiotensin system in kidney diseases. From 1980 to 1985, Rolf Stahl returned to Germany and completed his fellowship in internal medicine and nephrology in Freiburg.
In 1986, at an American Society of Nephrology meeting, Rolf sought out Dr. William Couser, head of the Division of Nephrology at the University of Washington in Seattle, to explore the possibility of spending 2 years with the Couser research group, which had extensive experience in creating, characterizing, and studying animal models of human immunologic kidney diseases, especially membranous nephropathy. Impressed by Rolf's sincerity, creativity, and commitment to clinically relevant basic research, he was invited to join the Couser laboratory and division at University of Washington as a visiting scholar for 2 years, an experience that dramatically altered the direction of his research. Known affectionately by his colleagues in the laboratory as the "Russian Professor" for the intensity of his focus and dedication to his research, Rolf thrived in Seattle, working closely with an international group of physician–scientists, including Couser, Richard Johnson, Matthias Schulze, Jurgen Floege, Stephen Adler, YiPu Chen, Masaomi Nangaku, Charlie Alpers, Stuart Shankland, and others, focused exclusively on the pathogenesis of both clinical and experimental aspects of immunologic kidney diseases, a topic that became his main scientific interest for the rest of his career.
In 1989, Rolf Stahl returned to Germany, first as assistant professor in Freiburg and then as a full professor in the Department of Nephrology at the University of Frankfurt/Main. In 1993, he was appointed a full professor and director of the newly founded III. Department of Medicine at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, which he developed with his team over the course of almost 25 years into one of the major departments of the Medical Faculty Hamburg. Rolf Stahl also made significant contributions in medical education and research to the Medical Faculty of the University Hamburg as dean of education from 2001 to 2003 and as dean from 2003 to 2007. In April 2017, he retired as department chair and remained an active member of the III. Department of Medicine as a senior professor and continued to run a highly productive research program until his final days.
In addition to his educational and administrative achievements, Rolf also succeeded in establishing his own team of clinicians and basic scientists, who exemplified the implementation of translational nephrology, combining clinical and morphologic studies, experimental work, implementation of well-characterized animal models, and technical advancements to decipher disease pathophysiology and improve the treatment of patients. Rolf launched several collaborative research initiatives with his team and made Hamburg an internationally highly visible hub for immune-mediated kidney disease research and patient care. For his clinical and research contributions, he was awarded the Franz Volhard Medal, the highest honor of the German Society of Nephrology in 2017.
The most distinguished scientific contributions of Rolf and his team were in glomerular diseases, particularly membranous nephropathy. After Larry Beck and David Salant (also a Couser trainee in Boston, MA), identified phospholipase A2 receptor 1 (PLA2R1) as the most common target antigen in membranous nephropathy,1 the work of Rolf and his group provided critical insights into the pathogenicity and clinical role of the anti-PLA2R1 antibodies. They guided the establishment and clinical implementation of anti-PLA2R1 antibody measurements in membranous nephropathy, a tool in use today worldwide.2 His work, together with the work of other leading international teams, has established the scientific basis for the current use of anti-PLA2R1 antibodies in diagnosing, managing, and estimating the prognosis of patients with membranous nephropathy. Rolf was also deeply involved in the characterization of the molecular pathophysiology of membranous nephropathy and identification of new target antigens, most recently netrin G1.2 The earlier description of thrombospondin type-1 domain-containing protein 7A (THSD7A) as a potential molecular link between malignancies and membranous nephropathy3 had a strong impact on providing a scientific definition of "primary" and "secondary" membranous nephropathy. Under his leadership, the pathogenicity of anti-PLA2R1 antibody and anti-THSD7A antibody was established in elegant animal models of membranous nephropathy.4,5 These studies were then translated into clinical care, resulting in improved diagnosis, treatment, and understanding of the immune mechanisms underlying this important glomerular disease. His research projects were creative, ambitious, state of the art, and, most important, clinically highly relevant. He devoted himself to his scientific goal of better understanding the molecular and immunologic pathomechanisms of disease and to developing targeted therapies until the end. His contributions have written an important chapter in the long and evolving story of understanding the underlying mechanisms of membranous nephropathy.
Despite his heavy administrative duties, Rolf remained dedicated to his clinical and patient-centered work, and his meticulous medical history taking and clinical examinations were well known and emulated by colleagues and students. One of his most distinguished achievements was his clinical commitment and leadership during the 2011 enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli epidemic in Hamburg, which was a major success and served as a blueprint for nephrology in Germany and abroad. His deep understanding of human nature, his strong will, determination, self-discipline, loyalty, empathy, diligence, and scientific curiosity have left a legacy as a highly successful clinician, investigator, teacher, and administrator that ranks him among the top academic physician–scientists of this era and will serve as an inspiration for young physicians with the opportunity to pursue this challenging pathway.
In addition to his lifelong dedication to medicine, Rolf was also an avid athlete and cyclist. He recognized the powerful role that sports can play in bringing people together.
The nephrology community in Hamburg, as well as in Germany and abroad, is deeply saddened by the passing of Rolf Stahl—a distinguished scientist, a caring mentor, an outstanding clinician, a skilled teacher, and a devoted husband and father. He will be remembered most for his significant contributions to the field of immune-mediated kidney diseases, his leadership in the German medical community, and his commitment to his patients. Rolf Stahl is survived by his wife Gaby, his 3 sons, and his 4 grandchildren. He is also survived by his international academic family of friends, colleagues, and mentees who will forever remain grateful for the honor to have known and worked with him.
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