Colleagues mourn, celebrate pioneer Judah Folkman, MD

February 15, 2008

Judah Folkman, MD, whose work in cancer research led to significant breakthroughs in treating age-related macular degeneration, is being remembered as the kindly and compassionate "father of angiogenesis."

Key Points

The founder and director of the vascular biology program at Children's Hospital Boston died suddenly Jan. 14 after apparently having a heart attack at the Denver International Airport while en route to speak at a conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was 74 years old.

Those in the field of ophthalmology hailed Dr. Folkman for this discovery and follow-up work that led to the development of drugs on the market that are helping to preserve sight in patients around the world. When he delivered the keynote address at the American Academy of Ophthalmology annual meeting in November, ophthalmologists commended him with a standing ovation (see related article "Ophthalmology plays crucial role in angiogenesis research, Dr. Folkman says").

Early interest

From an early age, Dr. Folkman had a keen interest in science and was driven to find solutions that would aid patients.

Born Moses Judah Folkman in Cleveland in 1933 and the son of a rabbi, Dr. Folkman has been quoted as saying that he knew as a child that he wanted to become a doctor so that he could help suffering people. He first attended Ohio State University, then was accepted into Harvard Medical School at age 19. There, he helped develop the world's first implantable heart pacemaker. It serves as a model for today's devices.

As a researcher for the U.S. Navy in the early 1960s, Dr. Folkman began testing his theory that tumors require blood vessels to grow. To do this, he injected small tumors into the avascular cornea, about 2.5 mm from the limbus, said Henry Brem, MD, director of neurosurgery, the Harvey Cushing Professor of Neurosurgery, and professor of oncology and ophthalmology, Johns Hopkins University.

In that way, Dr. Folkman demonstrated that he was able to stimulate blood vessel growth in the eye, show how blood vessels grow, and how- if they were treated with inhibitors-their growth could be blocked, said Dr. Brem. He worked in Dr. Folkman's laboratory in 1973 and was one of several colleagues who provided insights into the man to Ophthalmology Times.

Dr. Folkman's landmark paper was published in 1971 in the New England Journal of Medicine. It hypothesized that tumors require a blood supply to nourish them, but that if that supply could be stopped, then the tumors would die. At that time, the lab employed about 10 people-compared with about 125 today. Dr. Folkman was the youngest full professor in Harvard Medical School's history, and he became its youngest department chairman.

From 1973 to 1974, young Dr. Brem served as a liaison between Dr. Folkman and the Baltimore lab of Arnall Patz, MD, who had become famous for his work on retinopathy of prematurity. Through that research with Dr. Patz, Dr. Brem helped Dr. Folkman write some of the first papers linking angiogenesis and ophthalmology.

Even in those early days, his lectures were "standing room only," Dr. Brem said.