Dr. Judah Folkman was first inspired to become a surgeon at the age of seven, when he accompanied his rabbi father visiting sick members of his congregation in the hospital. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, he graduated from Ohio State University and won admission to Harvard Medical School. While still a medical student at Harvard, Folkman developed one of the first pacemakers. He completed his surgical residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he became chief resident and continued his work with pacemakers. At the same time he observed hundreds of juvenile cancer patients, and began to wonder if there was a way to stop the spread of cancer by blocking the growth of the capillaries that supply the tumors with blood. Folkman began to focus on angiogenesis, the little understood process by which the body develops new blood vessels.
After completing his residency, Dr. Folkman was commissioned as a lieutenant in the United States Navy, serving from 1960 through 1962. During his service, he created an implantable device for timed drug-release, and donated it patent-free to the World Population Council. It is now known as Norplant. While working at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, he continued his exploration of angiogenesis and cancer, conducting a study of mouse melanoma cells. He saw that in some instances, the tumors failed to establish new blood vessels, and stopped growing. He began a long and frustrating search for the system that regulates the growth of blood vessels in men and animals, more convinced than ever that this was the key to controlling cancer.
In 1994, Dr. Folkman tested a compound named angiostatin on laboratory mice with lung cancer. Half were given only saline solution, while the other half were treated with angiostatin. In the control group, which received only saline, the cancer continued unchecked; in the mice who had received angiostatin, the tumors had vanished. Folkman's hypothesis was vindicated, and a new era in cancer research had finally begun. This initial success soon led to the development of even more potent compounds, such as endostatin, avastin and vasculostatin, which successfully halted the growth of tumors in laboratory mice. Skeptics charged that Folkman's test results could not be duplicated in other labs, but in 1999 the National Cancer Institute successfully repeated his experiments with endostatin, and the compound is now being studied not only for cancer treatment, but for the prevention of stroke and heart disease. They also show promise for more accurate diagnosis of human cancers.
When Dr. Judah Folkman died of a heart attack in 2008, he was already a legend in the world of cancer research. His achievements were celebrated in the 2001 book Dr. Folkman's War by Robert Cooke. Within two years of his death, more than 50 angiogenesis inhibitors were in clinical trials. Some have been applied not only to the treatment of cancer, but to a host of other illnesses, including macular degeneration and diabetes. His research led to the development of such widely used prescription drugs as Erbitux, Celebrex and Herceptin. New developments in angiostatic drugs occur every year and many scientists predict that when a pharmaceutical treatment for human cancer is perfected, it will be built on the work of Dr. Judah Folkman.