Folkman Battles Cancer, Spotlight

HMS researcher put under media microscope by distorted reports that he could cure cancer

The cure for cancer might be modern medicine's holy grail, the greatest medical discovery since the polio vaccine.

Andrus Professor of Pediatric Surgery at Harvard Medical School (HMS) M. Judah Folkman was prepared to try and fight cancer. He was not prepared to be touted as the next Jonas Salk.

Folkman, who has spent his professional career researching the growth of blood vessels, announced in the November 1997 issue of Nature that drugs tested in his lab had caused tumors in mice to regress to microscopic size.

About one year later, a front-page article in the New York Times led a media blitz that managed to blow even this important discovery out of proportion, making Folkman sound steps away from a cure for cancer in humans.

In the year since that article was published, Folkman has had a rocky time as a medical celebrity.


Other labs had trouble duplicating his results. And he must continually but cautiously explain his work to the press and the public, making it clear that there are no miracles up his sleeve.

Scientific Successes

Since the late 1960s, Folkman's research has focused on the process of angiogenesis, whereby the body constructs new blood vessels.

Though his work did not originally have to do with cancer, Folkman soon realized that the formation of new blood vessels was crucial to tumor growth.

"For a tumor to grow beyond the size of a pencil eraser, it recruits its own blood supply, and it does that day after day," Folkman says.

Because the formation of new blood vessels in normal adults only occurs in special situations--wound healing, after a heart attack, and during menstruation--a process to suppress the development of these vessels logically prevents the formation of cancerous tumors.

Angiogenesis not only allows tumors to grow but also makes it more likely that they will metastasize, or spread through the vessels into the bloodstream and other parts of the body.

But even after a small tumor forms, cutting off its blood supply could render it harmless by preventing it from growing or spreading.

"You can have an in situtumor all your life and never know about it. In situcancer is not usually harmful because it does not metastasize," Folkman says.

It was Folkman--also director of the surgical research laboratory at the Children's Hospital Medical Research Center of HMS--who first hypothesized in the 1970s that cutting off a tumor's blood supply would essentially starve a tumor, potentially saving the lives of cancer patients.

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