After decades of surviving peer rejection of his theory of cancer treatment by blocking tiny blood vessels, Judah Folkman has gone on to develop drugs that did what he predicted they would do.
Folkman’s endostatin, the drug Fortune magazine called a failure, was used to treat 486 patients with lung cancer in China. At Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, it has helped adult and pediatric cancer patients.
A related drug, called Avastin, is now used in 28 countries, including the U.S. It is also being tested on patients with kidney, breast, and ovarian cancers.
Folkman, a professor of pediatric surgery and cell biology at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital in Boston, came up with the idea that tumors secrete proteins able to stimulate the growth of hair-thin blood vessels that bring them nutrients and carry away their wastes in 1961, while studying mice. He applied the name “angiogenesis,” meaning “birth of blood vessels,” to this process.
By 1997, Folkman and his colleagues at Boston’s Children’s Hospital found a natural compound they called endostatin, which blocks the growth of blood vessels and shrinks tumors without the usual harsh side effects of chemotherapy.
The battle over endostatin’s efficacy as a drug, however, still rages, but Avastin enjoys good press, suggesting that the angiogenesis-blocker boom is on.