Dr. Judah Folkman, pioneering cancer researcher who first developed the theory that cancer needs new blood vessels to develop, died suddenly on Monday, January 15, 2008 of a heart attack. He was traveling to a speaking engagement in Vancouver.
Folkman’s research into angiogenesis was initially dismissed with skepticism. He first published his ideas in 1971 in the New England Journal of Medicine but they were poorly accepted by doctors who saw the future of cancer treatment in destroying cancer directly through surgery or chemotherapy.
His laboratory developed two drugs that targeted blood vessel development — endostatin and angiostatin — but neither was eventually approved for cancer treatment in the United States. However, endostatin is widely used in China.
In 1998 when reports that tumors were dramatically shrinking in mice treated with anti-angiogenic drugs in Dr. Folkman’s laboratory, there was great excitement and speculation that the cure of cancer was on the immediate horizon. That proved premature.
In 2004 Avastin® (bevacizumab) was approved by the FDA to be used with chemotherapy to treat colorectal cancer. Avastin blocks VEGF — vascular endothelial growth factor — to prevent the development of a healthy blood supply for tumor growth. Today nearly 30 other agents are in use or are being developed that also target tumor blood supply.
Interviewed for the PBS Nova program Cancer Warrior, Dr. Folkman talked about the fine line between persistence and obstinacy in science. The entire Cancer Warrior program can also be seen online.
His friend, Dr. James Mandell, the CEO of Children’s Hospital in Boston told Newsweek that Folkman was the person who “never gave up. He was always the person who said,”
What are the problems you see in the patients? What are the unanswered questions? Let’s take them back to the lab and figure them out.
Last year, I had the special privilege of hearing Dr. Folkman’s Centennial lecture at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting in Los Angeles. You can see his slides and hear Dr. Folkman’s talk on the AACR webcasts. Early in the morning — it was a Sunrise Session — Folkman was full of energy and humor. He talked about the future of anti-angiogenic agents and the hope that treatments would be found to deal with the entire complex network of angiogenesis.
He also described the patients from whom he learned and talked about science and his young granddaughter.
His courage and willingness to keep on working despite controversy and skepticism is an inspiration to both researchers and advocates. He will be greatly missed.
In an interview with the Boston Globe last November, Folkman summed up much of both the dreams and frustrations of cancer researchers when he said,
The ideas are simple, but getting them figured out is very complicated. We never use the word ‘cure’ because it is far away,It may be that patients will have little tiny cancers that lie dormant for a long time.
Folkman was born February 24, 1933 in Cleveland, Ohio. At the time of his death he was Professor of Cell Biology at Harvard and director of the Vascular Biology Program at Children’s Hospital in Boston. He is survived by his wife Paula, two daughters, and a granddaughter.