School of Medicine

Obituary: Michael E. Hughes, assistant professor of pulmonary medicine, 41

Michael Hughes

Michael Evan Hughes, PhD, a neuroscientist and chronobiologist highly respected for his research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, died Tuesday, May 4, 2021, at his home in St. Louis after a six-year battle with brain cancer. He was 41.

An assistant professor in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Hughes was married to Jing Hughes, MD, PhD, an assistant professor in the university’s Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism & Lipid Research. Together, they had three daughters: Sophie, 12; Quinn, 9; and Carolyn, 6.

“Michael was a smart and creative scientist, as well as a terrific teacher and mentor, both at Washington University and in the larger scientific community,” said Victoria J. Fraser, MD, the Adolphus Busch Professor of Medicine and head of the Department of Medicine. “He was an absolute joy to be around. We will all miss him deeply.”

Hughes opened a lab at the School of Medicine in 2017 and became an expert in circadian genomics, stemming from his research on the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle during healthy and diseased conditions.

He spearheaded efforts to establish standards for data collection, analysis and sharing in circadian biology and medicine. He collaborated with scientists nationwide on initiatives that included respected studies of skeletal muscle biology and function in aging and chronic disease. He helped develop JTK Cycle, a widely used algorithm that collects large-scale genomic data on biological rhythms. Hughes also helped lead the Hope Center for Neurological Disorders Clocks & Sleep Club, which promotes research on biological cycles and sleep in neurodegenerative diseases.

“Michael was a world-class scientist who made seminal contributions to the understanding of how time and time-related genes — the so-called biological clock — can impact health and disease,” said Michael J. Holtzman, MD, the Selma and Herman Seldin Professor of Medicine and director of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. “Those who knew him were dazzled by his capacity for outstanding work while still devoting himself to family and battling a devastating illness with fearless and frank resolve.”

Hughes wrote an engaging and candid blog about living with brain cancer. After he was diagnosed with recurrent glioblastoma in spring 2020, he used the blog to sort through emotions. “This diagnosis and the one before it, the first emotions were anger and frustration: anger at cancer, myself, the doctors and any innocent bystanders that happened to be nearby. I wanted to scream: ‘Not [expletive] fair,’ but I obviously can’t do that with my kids in the next room. Sometimes this verged on despair, although when I rhetorically asked myself ‘Why me?,’ my imagined tumor shrugged and said ‘Why not?’ ”

Read more.