Research Community Mourns Death, Celebrates Life of Judah Folkman
One of the most highly praised and respected cancer researchers, Dr. Judah Folkman of Harvard University and Children's Hospital Boston, died last week from a heart attack. He was 74.
In the wake of his unexpected death, leading researchers praised his groundbreaking work on the role of angiogenesis in tumor development, calling him a pioneer who almost single-handedly altered how cancer is viewed and treated.
"Dr. Folkman championed and led the field of angiogenesis," said NCI Director Dr. John E. Niederhuber. "His dedicated leadership has created the ultimate legacy: a legion of students and fellows, many of whom are now important scientists and scientific leaders in their own right."
Dr. Folkman first came to national prominence in 1971, when he published a paper in The New England Journal of Medicine in which he proposed that tumors required a dedicated blood supply to form and grow, and that they orchestrated the formation of new blood vessels for this express purpose. Disrupting this process, he suggested, could be an effective cancer treatment.
"As a surgeon, I had seen tumors and handled them, and saw that the blood vessels converging on the tumor by the thousands, and coming from a long distance, appeared to be new," Dr. Folkman recounted in a 2001 interview, discussing the often intense, decades-long skepticism toward his angiogenesis theory.
By the mid-1990s, with a growing cadre of researchers investigating his theory in lab and animal model studies - including seminal work by Dr. Folkman and his laboratory colleagues - it became evident that his 1971 proposal was correct.
In February 2004, bevacizumab (Avastin) became the first specifically designed anti-angiogenesis agent to receive FDA approval, for the first-line treatment of metastatic colorectal cancer. Other agents have followed, including sunitinib (Sutent) and sorafenib (Nexavar), both approved for the treatment of kidney cancer, and at least 50 angiogenesis inhibitors are in clinical trials around the world.
More recently, angiogenesis research has taken many interesting twists, including clinical trials using low-dose, frequent chemotherapy as an anti-angiogenic treatment and using anti-angiogenesis agents to "normalize" the vasculature of brain tumors in order to more effectively deliver chemotherapy.
According to Children's Hospital Boston, in fact, more than 1,000 laboratories worldwide are studying angiogenesis. One of those is headed by Dr. Steve Libutti, head of the Tumor Angiogenesis Section in the Surgery Branch of NCI's Center for Cancer Research (CCR). Much of Dr. Folkman's success, Dr. Libutti says, was driven by his persistence and infectious enthusiasm.
"He was able to take very complicated concepts and explain them in a way that could allow anyone, regardless of their background or specific interest, to understand what he was talking about," he says. "If you went to one of his lectures, you always came out of it motivated to go cure cancer."
Dr. Folkman's work extended well beyond cancer, Dr. Libutti adds, spurring important new insights into and treatments for other conditions and diseases in which the vasculature plays a critical role, including macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and ischemic heart disease.
As much as anything, Dr. Folkman is most warmly remembered as the quintessential mentor. Dr. Kevin Camphausen, a branch chief in the CCR Radiation Oncology Branch who worked in Dr. Folkman's lab from 1999 to 2001, recalls that while the lab had a competitive atmosphere and Dr. Folkman had high expectations, he was generous with his time.
"He was a great mentor, incredibly kind, intelligent, and humble," Dr. Camphausen says. "He always took time to sit with you if you asked. He was willing to help everybody."
In addition to receiving numerous awards and honors, Dr. Folkman was highly supportive of NCI, most recently working closely with the NIH Trans-Institute Angiogenesis Research Program and, just 2 weeks ago, speaking to young investigators at the NCI Intramural Scientific Retreat.
Dr. Folkman is survived by his wife, Paula, and two daughters, Laura and Marjorie.