BOSTON (AP) - Dr. Judah Folkman, a groundbreaking researcher who worked to cut off cancer from its blood supply, curing the disease in mice and giving humans hope for a cure, has died. He was 74.
Folkman died late Monday in Denver, said Elizabeth Andrews, a spokeswoman at Children's Hospital Boston, where Folkman was director of the vascular biology program.
"I think he was one of the most important investigators of our time," said Dr. David Nathan, president emeritus of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. "Losing him is like watching a Roman candle go out."
Robert Cooke, author of the book "Dr. Folkman's War: Angiogenesis and the Struggle to Defeat Cancer" said he died of an apparent heart attack.
Folkman's research has led to 10 cancer drugs currently on the market that are helping more than 1.2 million patients worldwide. Dozens of other drugs based on his ideas are being developed.
Folkman championed the idea that cancer needs a growing network of blood vessels to survive, and that blocking that process, called angiogenesis, will stop or even eliminate tumors. He was able to cure mice of the disease, and his work opened the door to a whole new line of treatment that has slowed the growth of cancer in humans.
"Is it a cure? No, but his idea is to drive tumors into dormancy and for that, it works," Cooke said. "It's been turned into a disease like diabetes that can be managed."
Angiogenesis inhibitors also have shown success in treating not just cancer but other diseases, including arthritis and diseases of the eye, heart and skin.
"Dr. Judah Folkman is recognized by all as the father of angiogenesis research," Dr. John Niederhuber, director of the National Cancer Institute, said in a statement. "He never wavered in his passionate belief that the growth of new blood vessels was a critical factor to the process of cancer development and progression. ... His contributions are legendary."
Folkman's research dates to the 1960s when he worked at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., as a lieutenant in the Navy. He and a colleague, working with rabbits and mice, noticed that cancerous tumors stopped growing when removed from a body, then started growing again when implanted in another animal.
"That was the clue that set him off," Cooke said. "He reasoned there was some barrier that stopped those tumors from growing. And after years of banging his head against the wall he realized that it was the blood supply."
In the 1990s, Folkman's lab discovered two natural compounds, endostatin and angiostatin, that appeared to be cancer fighters, shrinking and eliminating tumors in mice.
Folkman carried on his work in relative anonymity until a May 1998 front-page story in the Sunday New York Times, in which Dr. James Watson, the Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the shape of DNA, was quoted as saying, "Judah is going to cure cancer in two years."
"That set off a fuss, and many of his colleagues were all upset because it was too radical an idea, they said it can't be all that simple," Cooke said.
Folkman himself played down Watson's proclamation.
"I don't think angiogenesis inhibitors will be the cure for cancer. But I do think that they will make cancer more survivable and controllable, especially in conjunction with radiation, chemotherapy, and other treatments," he wrote in Scientific American in October 1998.
His discoveries prompted pharmaceutical companies to pursue research in the area, and some drugs have succeeded in extending the lives of patients with advanced cancer.
"The work that he has done is now the basis of billions of dollars of research around the world," said Dr. Jim Mandell, the president and CEO of Children's Hospital Boston, who has known Folkman for three decades.
Folkman's peers remembered him Tuesday as a doctor with an insatiable thirst for knowledge who never forgot that patients came first. He spent hours a day taking telephone calls and answering beeps from patients and fellow researchers all over the world, Cooke said.
"Not only was he a brilliant scientist, he's always been the most amazingly kind and generous man," Mandell said.
Moses Judah Folkman was born in Cleveland, the son of a rabbi. His father made frequent trips to the hospital to comfort the ill, and it was during these trips that Folkman decided he wanted to become a doctor.
He earned a medical degree in 1957 from Harvard Medical School, where he helped design one of the first implantable heart pacemakers.
While in the Navy, Folkman also played a pivotal role in the development of devices placed under the skin that slowly time-released drugs, often used these days for birth control.
Survivors include his wife, Paula, daughters Laura and Marjorie, and one grandchild. Memorial and funeral arrangements are pending.
Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press
Published in Foster's Daily Democrat on Jan. 15, 2008.