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Lars R. Haaheim (1945-2011)

PhD, Professor Emeritus, University of Bergen, Norway

Photograph courtesy of Hilde Haaheim (Lars’ daughter)

On Tuesday 28 June 2011, Lars Haaheim tragically died whilst on a fishing trip in a fjord near his summer home in Sveio, Norway. Lars was an internationally-renowned influenza scientist and a founder member of the International Society for Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses (isirv).

From his formative academic years at the University of Bergen, Lars was an influenza enthusiast. He specialised in “host antigens in egg grown influenza virus” during his graduate degree in 1973 and his PhD project completed in 1981 involved a study of antigenic variation of influenza proteins. In the earlier stages of his career he was deeply involved and responsible for the production of influenza vaccines in Norway (Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Oslo) and then became Director of the WHO National influenza Centre in Oslo. Lars was a regular contributor to WHO influenza meetings and pioneered serum surveys of Norwegian populations to determine their immune status to new influenza strains. The map of Norway became very familiar to WHO folk when Lars presented his findings. In the 1970’s, Lars spent a year in the influenza laboratories of the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, UK where he was very much involved with the development of laboratory methods for the study of influenza viruses and vaccines.

In 1980 Lars moved to the University of Bergen to become Head of the Immunochemistry Laboratory and more importantly to form the first Influenza Centre at the University. He was Director of the WHO National Influenza Centre for Western Norway in 1982-2001 and was actively involved in preparing the Norwegian Pandemic plan, as well as the first WHO Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Plan. Up to 1 September 2008 Lars was Professor and Head of the Influenza Centre, The Gade Institute, University of Bergen, Norway and as of 2010 he became a Professor Emeritus at the University of Bergen, teaching immunology.
Lars built and enhanced the international reputation of the Influenza Centre, which as of 2002 received annual financial support from the Norwegian Ministry of Health and Care Services. The Influenza Centre gained extensive experience from studies on the kinetics of the post-vaccination humoral and cellular immune response, as well as in mucosal immunity. This expertise made the Influenza Centre an attractive partner in EU Framework Programmes dealing with development of influenza vaccines. Lars patented a technology to detect secretion of antibody by human B lymphocytes and subsequently established a company “PlasmAcute AS” to explore its diagnostic potential. As a result of this earlier work, Lars’ group made ground breaking discoveries of the speed with which human B lymphocytes secrete antibody after influenza vaccination.

Early in Lars’ teaching career at the University of Bergen he realised that there was no satisfactory textbook on virology for the medical students. It exemplifies Lars attitude to life, that instead of moaning about the situation, he started doing something about it with the result that in 1989 he published with two other colleagues a very successful textbook “A Practical Approach to Clinical Virology”. This was revised in 2002 and it is a lasting legacy from Lars to medical students.

Lars was an eminent speaker at international scientific conferences. He had a style all of his own, combining humour with scientific rigour and he was not afraid to take the scientific community to task if action was needed. Lars was acutely aware of our shortcomings in preparing for an influenza pandemic, in particular the plight of small countries with no resident vaccine producer. By bringing this to our attention, Lars has been instrumental in making available “swine flu” pandemic vaccine to countless vulnerable people over the world. Lars has successfully organised several international conferences, most notably the acclaimed series on “Immune Correlates of Protective Immunity to Influenza”, the first of which was held in Bergen in 2002 and the most recent with Dr Jackie Katz as a joint organiser of an isirv-sponsored meeting in Miami in 2010. Lars recognised where gaps in our knowledge lay and he knew the key people and opinion leaders around the world to try to come up with answers. Lars was most recently working with Prof Emanuele Montomoli on an isirv-sponsored “Summer School on Influenza” scheduled for 1-5 August 2011 in Siena, Italy. Lars was a Scientific Advisor to the Vaccine Department at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo, served for 12 years on the Norwegian Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Committee and was a member of the ad hoc ECDC Expert Advisory Group on Human H5N1 Vaccines.

In 2002, Lars was a driving force and one of six enthusiastic founder members of isirv. From such small beginnings, the founding membership was expanded during 2003 when Lars helped to draft the guiding principles and mission statement of isirv. The inaugural meeting of isirv was held in September 2005. Lars was an important member of the isirv Board from the very beginning until his untimely death. Lars could be relied upon to come up with good ideas for the promotion of isirv and its activities. When isirv and Wiley-Blackwell created the isirv journal “Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses” in January 2007, Lars became a key member of the Editorial Board and his expertise on editorial policy and on manuscript evaluation will be sorely missed.
Lars, in keeping with his ‘Viking’ ancestors was an inveterate traveller. In addition to attendance at scientific conferences, he had many overseas working visits, including sabbaticals at the Collaborating Centres for Influenza at National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill, UK; Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, USA and Melbourne, Australia. More recently Lars was a visiting scholar at the Fraunhofer Center for Molecular Biotechnology in Newark, USA, to work on vaccine proteins generated in plant cells.

On a personal level, we will miss Lars for his friendship, his positive approach to life, his excellent command of English which put many a native speaker to shame; his sharp wit and eloquence; his scientific integrity and innovative spirit; his courage to take on others when he saw an injustice; and lastly his free and independent spirit as exemplified by his one man stance against smoking reforms. Lars loved the outdoor life and it is fitting that he ended his days in his fishing boat in his beloved Norway. Lars is survived by his wife Vigdis, three children and five grandchildren.
Dr John Wood, Deputy Chair isirv and Principal Scientist at the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, Blanche Lane, South Mimms, Potters Bar, Herts EN6 3QG, UK (retired)
Dr Geoffrey Schild, Honorary Vice-President of isirv and Director of the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, Blanche Lane, South Mimms, Potters Bar, Herts EN6 3QG, UK (retired)
Prof. Rebecca Cox, Influenza Centre, The Gade Institute, University of Bergen, Laboratory Building, 5th Floor, Haukeland University Hospital, N-5021 Bergen, Norway