Folkman Leaves Behind an Inspiring Legacy of Science, Learning, and Startups

Back when I was starting out in some lowly jobs at the Longwood Medical area, I was constantly reminded of the greatness of certain of the people around me. But one of those people—Judah Folkman—stood out, not only because of his contagious delight and fascination with science, but because of his kindness and unassuming manner.

Folkman, who died yesterday in Denver at the age of 74, was a remarkable human being as well as a brilliant scientist and revered mentor. A surgeon by training, he was a Harvard professor leading the vascular biology program at Boston’s Children’s Hospital at the time of his death.

Folkman’s breakthrough theory about the crucial role of new blood vessel formation (angiogenesis) in cancer growth and spread was one of the most important new biological ideas to emerge in the last 50 years. Today some of top new cancer drugs (including Genentech’s Avastin) are so-called anti-angiogenics that block new blood vessels from forming and thereby deprive tumors of the oxygen and nutrients they need to grow.

The full impact on medicine of Folkman’s angiogenesis research is only beginning to be felt. The Associated Press reported that it has already led to 10 new drugs, helping more than a million patients, and forming the basis of billions of dollars of research worldwide. Angiogenesis turns out to play a critical role in such diverse conditions as arthritis and blindness, in addition to cancer; anti-angiogenics are already being used to treat age-related macular degeneration, one of the most common causes of blindness.

Folkman’s impact was felt locally as well. His work and that of protégés spawned scores of new Boston-area companies and new projects at established companies. MIT’s Robert Langer, for instance, entered Folkman’s lab in 1974 as a chemical engineer highly sought by the likes of oil companies, and emerged as one of Boston biotech’s most prolific inventors and startup founders. In a remembrance of Folkman, Langer writes: “That job changed my life… Dr. Folkman was the greatest role model a young scientist could have. He was a fantastic mentor, a superb role model, one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met, and a truly great man.”

Most recently, Cambridge-based SynDexRx was formed in 2007 around a broad patent portfolio developed in Folkman’s lab; the company’s lead drug candidate is an anti-angiogenic called Caplostatin. SynDexRx’s just announced, eye-popping advisory board, includes oncology heavies Rakesh K. Jain, Daniel Von Hoff, and Roy Herbst—a testament to Folkman’s influence on his peers.

Naturally, Folkman’s theory about angiogenesis didn’t catch on immediately, but he championed it tirelessly and with remarkably good humor. Even during the inevitable “backlash stage,” when critics were pointing to early anti-angiogenic drugs that were not showing much effect, he was unperturbed. He had clearly anticipated rough spots. But his optimism was fueled by both a firm conviction in his science and a determination to help patients.

In a talk he gave in 2005, for instance, Folkman described how he had gathered a list of already approved drugs that were now also known to be anti-angiogenics, and was trying to give terminal cancer patients a last chance by helping them get access to those therapies.

The last time I saw Folkman it was on the Amtrak from DC to Boston about two years ago. Recognizing him immediately, I boldly put my hand out and said “Dr. Folkman, do you remember me?” (The circumstances of our previous meetings had been entirely forgettable of course.) He greeted me with his typical warmth, inquiring about my work, and then we were quickly talking about science.

“Next time you’re in the neighborhood, you must come to the lab,” he said with characteristic glee. “We’re doing some really amazing things.”

That was Judah Folkman.

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