In a Small Lab at Whitehead

In a Small Lab at Whitehead, Researcher John Codington Continues His Life's Work

Having peppermint tea and crackers at a small table in the break room of the Whitehead Biomedical Research Building, Senior Research Associate John Codington, PhD, looks out the window onto a crisp November day. The ninety-three-year-old chemist is wearing an orange sweater bright enough to eclipse the fall foliage. He has his own lab space just down the hall, where he comes nearly every day to work in cancer research.

The railroad tracks running by the Depot are just visible through the trees. "That used to be a passenger stop when I went to school here," he says. Codington's journey has taken him full circle, from Atlanta, where his family moved when he was one, to college at Emory, to the University of Virginia's malaria research program, to the National Institutes of Health, to Europe, to faculty positions at Cornell and Harvard, to private biotech companies, and back to Emory.

John Codington, PhD
John Codington, PhD

His primary research concerns the chemical changes in cell surface glycoproteins associated with immunoresistance in tumor cells, and his goal is to develop a diagnostic assay of sera to detect the presence of a carcinoma (cancer found in epithelial tissues). He hopes to develop a better, more reliable, and consistent way to detect most cancers, preferably at the earliest stages. "The test must be robust and suitable for clinical use," he says.

Codington's lab isolated epiglycanin, and recognized that antibodies to epiglycanin signaled a cancer-specific substance in the blood of carcinoma patients. He has worked since to improve the diagnostic assay by making it more stable and consistent—a quest he plans to continue as long as he is able. "We isolated the active component of epiglycanin, which I call Emorin, for Emory," says Codington, who admits to feeling more himself in a lab coat than street clothes. "We are pretty close to having the final answer but we don’t have it yet."

Difficulties abound. Cancer, he says, is so close to being normal that many aspects of a cancer cell are present in normal cells. Also, when dealing with human serum, you are dealing with the entire history of each individual. "If they have had measles, or mumps, they have those antibodies. All of these things come to bear," Codington says, "That's why it's taking so long, and why no one else has found it."

Cancer Cells with Antibodies
Cancer Cells with Antibodies

As a student at Emory, where he was manager of the swim team and played French horn in the symphony orchestra, Codington studied organic chemistry, graduating with honors and going on to gain a master's degree in chemistry. His brother, Arthur Codington, attained his bachelor's and medical degrees at Emory, and sister, Mary Codington, completed her master's degree in biochemistry at Emory and master's in public health from Yale.

Soon after graduation, Codington was called into service by the U.S. Army's Office of Research and Development, working through a program at the University of Virginia to develop a better drug for malaria."This was during the time of World War II," he says. "I synthesized a series of 7-choloro-quinoline derivatives, and it was my good fortune that this work contributed to the development of chloroquin, which is still used in treating malaria." Many decades later, an Emory student who had suffered malaria as a child would thank him for saving her life.

Codington received a PhD in chemistry from the University of Virginia in 1945, and continued his work on malaria at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, until 1949. Then he decided to go to France, more for humanitarian reasons than scientific ones, although he did research at the Pharmacology Lab of the Faculte de Medecine de Paris while there. "I was concerned with the sad state of the world, mainly the threat of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union," he says. "I spent time in Italy, Germany, England, Wales, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Spain, and learned a lot about the world."

On the advice of Michael Heidelberger, the "father" of modern immunology, he returned to America to work at Columbia University with Hans Clarke, chair of the Department of Biochemistry, studying the relationship between structure and function in the antibiotic Bacitracin, and then joined the staff at the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. "In the quest for better anti-cancer drugs I synthesized many different analogs of DNA and RNA,” he says. “Among these were the first fluorine-substituted sugar."

In the 1950s, Codington became highly involved with the Civil Rights movement, working to integrate black scientists fully into scientific associations and starting science clubs in Harlem elementary schools. He was executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of Negroes in Science for many years. And, as chair of the Westchester Coordinating Committee for Justice Now, he helped to organize forty busloads of protestors, black and white, to attend the Great March on Washington in 1963. "The movement at that time had tremendous enthusiasm and energy to it," he said.

A move to Massachusetts General Hospital to continue his study of the biochemical processes associated with malignancy led to a faculty position at Harvard Medical School, an affiliation that would last thirty-three years, seventeen as associate professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology. He also worked at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute for fifteen years. "My years in Boston were fruitful, and I learned a lot about the structure and biological role of glycoproteins in cancer," he says.

His wife, Ceil, with whom he had three children, Bill, Idy, and Dory, died in 2003 and Codington moved back to Atlanta in 2005 and resumed his work as a senior research associate at Emory. Codington's work gained the support of Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Chemistry Dennis Liotta, PhD, and Professor of Pathology Charles Parkos, MD, PhD, who provided him equipment and space. "John presented his intriguing work on epiglycanin and its implications as a blood test for cancer," Parkos says. "His progress was limited by a lack of antibodies and I offered to provide him with some bench space and help in producing antibodies to epigylcanin."

The lab space Codington occupies on the first floor of Whitehead is small and filled with research equipment—beakers, test tubes, an Olympus microscope, a fume hood. Post-docs from Hungary, England, and Germany are sharing the space today, and clearly have a fondness for the senior scientist in their midst. "Although he has had very little financial resources for his project," Parkos says, "he has worked tirelessly and enthusiastically. I have been happy to support John, who is at the senior end of his career, just as I have done with students and fellows who are at the start of their careers. He is a delightful man who never complains and has enlightened our group with interesting stories from his many past experiences."

Colleagues say they are inspired by Codington's commitment, and his ability to always move forward in the face of disappointment or difficulties. "Some Saturdays I don't make it in, but some Sundays I'll come in and coat a plate so I'll be ready for Monday," he says. "Some nights I work until 11 o'clock. I am fortunate that I can still work 12 to 14 hour days and not get too tired. I am confident that, if I don’t die today or tomorrow, we will achieve success."

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