Mendelsohn shares Tang Prize for leadership in developing targeted therapy

Targeted cancer therapy pioneer John Mendelsohn, M.D., researcher and former president of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, will share the 2018 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science for his leadership in developing antibodies to block cancer-promoting growth factor receptors on the surface of cancer cells.

In announcing the award on June 19 in Taiwan, the Tang Foundation noted the three awardees launched the field of targeted therapy – attacking tumors based on their genetic and molecular aberrations -- with their research to understand the role of tyrosine kinase proteins and to design ways to block their activity.

Their work led to “a thorough understanding of the fundamental principles of cell growth and cancer development,” the Tang Foundation noted in its announcement, and the therapies they developed “fundamentally changed the practices of cancer clinics.”

Mendelsohn, president of MD Anderson from 1996 to 2011, is a professor of Genomic Medicine and director of the Zayed Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy at MD Anderson, as well as the L.E. & Virginia Simmons Senior Fellow in the Division of Health and Technology Policy at Rice University's Baker Institute.

The honor cites Mendelsohn’s role in conceiving the approach of using antibodies to target the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), which is overexpressed or mutated to a cancer-promoting form in a variety of cancers.

Then at the University of California at San Diego, working with colleague Gordon Sato, Ph.D., Mendelsohn’s team conducted preclinical research and developed the anti-EGFR antibody cetuximab (Erbitux), which went on to approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of colon cancer and head and neck cancer. This first tyrosine kinase-targeting antibody was “a trail-blazer which has spurred many others to follow,” the Tang announcement notes.

“It’s an honor to be recognized by the Tang Foundation with colleagues who opened such an important chapter of cancer research,” Mendelsohn said. “By highlighting the vital connection between basic research and progress in the clinic, the Tang Foundation encourages the progress we need in scientific, translational and clinical research to continue to improve cancer treatment.”

The Tang prizes, announced in 2012 by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin, have been awarded every two years since 2014.

Also honored in Biopharmaceutical Science with Mendelsohn this year are:

  • Tony Hunter, Ph.D., professor of Biology at the Salk Institute, who discovered tyrosine phosphorylation, found that the Src oncogene is a tyrosine kinase, and demonstrated the role of tyrosine phosphorylation in uncontrolled cancer growth.
  • Brian Druker, M.D., director of the Oregon Health Sciences University Knight Cancer Institute, who advocated for and led the successful clinical trial of imatinib (known commercially as Gleevec) for chronic myelogenous leukemia, the first successful small-molecule tyrosine kinase inhibitor.

Tang prizes are awarded in four categories: Biopharmaceutical Science, Sustainable Development, Sinology (the study of Chinese language, history, customs and politics) and Rule of Law. Winners receive a medal and diploma and share a cash award of approximately $1.33 million and a $330,000 research grant.