At the age of seven, Judah Folkman accompanied his rabbi father on visits to hospitalized congregation members and became inspired to become a surgeon. While at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Folkman developed one of the first pacemakers, and while serving in the U.S. Navy, he developed an implantable device, now known as Norplant, for timed drug-release, which he donated patent-free to the World Population Council.
While Dr. Folkman was chief of surgery at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, at the age of 34, he saw hundreds of bloody tumors in juvenile cancer patients. This experience led him to seek ways to stop the growth of tumors by blocking angiogenesis, the mechanism by which new blood vessels develop to feed cancerous growths. Folkman’s idea was met with indifference, even ridicule, for 20 years, but in 1983 he identified a capillary growth stimulant substance. Two years later, he discovered a substance that inhibited such growth and later found many more such substances. The focus on elucidating the molecular mechanisms that initiate and suppress angiogenesis makes it possible to identify potential targets for the development of diagnostic tests and therapeutic drugs for conditions ranging from obesity to eye disease to cancer. One antiangiogenic drug, Avastin, that was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as part of combination chemotherapy for first-line treatment of metastatic colorectal cancer is also used to treat macular degeneration.
Dr. Folkman pioneered the use of interferon in cancer therapy, healing hemangiomas, growths that often threaten the life of infants. His research has led to the development of progressively more potent compounds, such as angiostatin, endostatin, and vasculostatin.
Many scientists predict that when a pharmaceutical treatment for human cancer is perfected, it will be built on the work of Dr. Folkman.