MD Anderson’s mission is to end cancer. Working each day alongside the many people providing nursing care, nutritious food, shuttle services, parking assistance, lab test analysis and other services are researchers and physician-scientists who have made history in understanding and treating cancer.
The cancer center is home to world-renowned experts who have ushered in medical “firsts,” from life-changing drug discoveries to more efficient methods for analyzing incomprehensible amounts of clinical study data. These everyday heroes and heroines already have a place in the history books, but their contributions may not be apparent to patients who depend on their significant discoveries and achievements.
Here are five MD Anderson faculty members — just a few of the many — who moved cancer treatment forward through their trailblazing scientific work.
Testing for HPV
Maura Gillison, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Thoracic/Head and Neck Medical Oncology, played a key role along with the late K. Kiang Ang, M.D., Ph.D., in recognizing that head-and-neck cancer patients who had tumors in the upper throat and tested positively for the human papillomavirus (HPV) had better overall survival than patients with HPV-negative disease. The study findings, published in 2010 in The New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that all patients with this common disease should be tested for HPV. Gillison and her team went on to show that HPV is responsible for several cancer types in men and women, including cancers in the back of the throat in an area known as the oropharynx. About 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers are linked to HPV, and the number of cases diagnosed is rising dramatically, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Flow cytometry pioneer
Michael Andreeff, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Leukemia, is a pioneer in the development of flow cytometry, a method for counting and sorting cells that is commonly used in today’s clinical trials. This extraordinarily life-changing discovery allows scientists to quickly conduct cell counting, cell sorting, biomarker detection and protein engineering, by suspending cells in a stream of fluid which is passed through an electronic detection apparatus. Flow cytometry makes possible the analysis of physical and chemical characteristics of thousands of particles per second. Today, it’s routinely used to diagnose health disorders, especially blood cancers, but has many applications in basic research, clinical practice and clinical trials.
A one-two punch
Emil Freireich, M.D., professor of Leukemia, collaborated with the late Emil Frei, M.D. in the mid-1960s, resulting in the development of combination chemotherapy, which uses multiple drugs at once to fight cancer. This approach led to cures in more than 90 percent of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a nearly always fatal disease prior to Freireich’s research, and more effective treatments for various adult cancers including Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Freireich and Frei’s work in chemotherapy is believed to have saved the lives of more than 100,000 children. In addition, Freireich and colleagues designed continuous flow separators to divide whole blood from healthy donors into cellular components. The technique, first used to obtain white blood cells, was later adapted to collect lymphocytes for immunotherapy and stem cells for bone marrow transplantation.
Gabriel Lopez-Berestein, M.D., professor of Experimental Therapeutics, in the 1980s developed an antifungal, liposomal-encapsulated agent for the treatment of potentially life-threatening systemic fungal infections, common among patients with reduced immunity due to chemotherapy. Lopez-Berestein has been a prominent leader in experimental therapeutics and has conducted “bench-to-bedside” translation of more than 20 compounds with several FDA-approved drugs. His was the first lab to carry out pharmacokinetic and clinical trials of liposomal-based drugs in the U.S. and to develop several antifungal and antitumor therapeutics such as nystatin and annamycin. More recently, he pioneered the use of ncRNAs in Phase I trials.
Millions of lives saved
V. Craig Jordan, Ph.D., professor of Breast Medical Oncology, is often called the “Father of Tamoxifen,” the groundbreaking therapeutic drug that has saved millions of breast cancer patients’ lives. Jordan is credited with “reinventing” the failed contraceptive drug tamoxifen as a breast cancer treatment. The drug, in existence since the 1960s, was originally created to prevent pregnancy by blocking estrogen. Jordan developed the strategy of long-term adjuvant tamoxifen therapy, as well as describing and deciphering the properties of a new group of medicines called selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs). He first discovered the preventive abilities of both tamoxifen and the drug raloxifene. In 1998, tamoxifen was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for reducing breast cancer risk in high-risk women. The FDA granted approval for raloxifene in 2007.