Targeted cancer therapy pioneer John Mendelsohn, M.D., researcher and former president of MD Anderson Cancer Center, was awarded a share of 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, who served as president of MD Anderson from 1996 to 2011, and was a professor of Genomic Medicine and director of the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy at MD Anderson, announced his retirement in August. He was named President Emeritus following a unanimous vote by the UT System Board of Regents. Mendelsohn was also 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 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 noted.
“It’s an honor to be recognized by the Tang Foundation with colleagues who opened such an important chapter of cancer research,” Mendelsohn says. “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.
During Mendelsohn's 15-year tenure as president, research expenditures jumped more than fourfold, from $121 million in 1996 to $547 million in 2010. MD Anderson became the nation’s leading recipient of grants from the National Cancer Institute, greatly increased institutional research funding from clinical operations and boosted external funding via philanthropy.
The South Campus Research Initiative enabled the development the Red and Charline McCombs Institute for the Early Detection and Treatment of Cancer, as well as MD Anderson's largest fundraising campaign, Making Cancer History®: The Campaign to Transform Cancer Care, which generated more than $1.2 billion in philanthropic commitments that have since fueled significant advances in patient care and research.
Under Mendelsohn's leadership, space for research expanded with construction of the George and Cynthia Mitchell Basic Sciences Research Building, home of the Institute for Basic Science. He also guided the opening of the Lowry and Peggy Mays Clinic — a 320-bed addition above Alkek Hospital, the John Mendelsohn Faculty Center and the T. Boone Pickens Academic Tower, the Proton Therapy Center, and a 126-room expansion of the Rotary House International Hotel.
An innovative commitment to prevention research built what is now the Dan L. Duncan Building to house the Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences and established the Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment to support research.
Dr. Mendelsohn is an unparalleled servant leader. I am personally inspired and motivated daily by his example and his contributions to our mission to end cancer.