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A Tribute to Judah Folkman
by Nancy Linde

In memory of a good and gentle man

On January 14, 2008, Dr. Judah Folkman was doing something he did scores of times every year—traveling to a scientific conference in British Columbia to inspire young researchers and reinvigorate established ones by talking about angiogenesis, the scientific field he gave birth to in the 1960s and nurtured for more than 40 years. But Dr. Folkman never made it to that conference. En route to Vancouver, he collapsed and died at the age of 74.

If Dr. Folkman could have his way, he would want me to write about angiogenesis (the growth of new blood vessels) and the role it plays in disease. He would want me to explain how stopping the growth of those blood vessels (anti-angiogenesis) can halt many diseases. He would want me to note that more than a million patients around the world are now taking anti-angiogenic drugs to treat cancer and to stop, even reverse, the blinding effects of macular degeneration.

Dr. Folkman is called the father of angiogenesis because, like any good father, he believed in his science, supported it, promoted it, and defended it. He stayed with angiogenesis during the dark years when few people believed in it. He remained steadfast during the manic years when expectations ran unrealistically high. For more than four decades, Dr. Folkman was a man on a mission. It was a scientific mission, to be sure, but at its core, Dr. Folkman was on a mission to stop human suffering.

And that's why I don't want to write about angiogenesis but to focus on the man I came to know through the production of the NOVA film Cancer Warrior. William Wordsworth once wrote "the best portion of a good man's life is his little nameless, unremembered acts of kindness." But, in fact, those acts of kindness are the things I remember best about Dr. Folkman.

I remember how, even though he ceased treating patients decades ago to concentrate on his research, he would stop everything when he was asked to consult on a particularly challenging case. I remember how this good and gentle man would end every day, after 10, 12, or even more hours of exhausting work, by returning at least a half-dozen calls to cancer sufferers in search of a glimmer of hope. I remember how humbly he spoke about his own achievements and how gloriously he spoke about the achievements of his colleagues. And most of all, I remember how dearly loved he was by the people he worked with, from the office staff and lab assistants to world-renowned researchers.

It is those colleagues, and his wonderful family whose sadness is immeasurable, that I think about. But Dr. Folkman's death is also an immense loss for science. A bright and shining light has been extinguished. An optimistic scientist who believed that hard problems can be solved. A dedicated scientist who understood that failure was a necessary and important part of the process. A passionate scientist who inspired many thousands of others. It falls to those who knew him to carry on his work. But along the way, I hope they also remember those "little, nameless … acts of kindness" that made Dr. Folkman so special.

For "Cancer Warrior," we filmed a very long interview with Dr. Folkman over a period of several days. Towards the end, he was telling us the story of what was perhaps his most important insight, which came to him not in a laboratory but while he was sitting in temple during the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur. When the filming ended, Dr. Folkman regaled us with a few (somewhat lame) jokes. But I kept thinking about the story he had told and finally asked, "Dr. Folkman, it was Yom Kippur and you weren't praying or seeking atonement. You were instead thinking about your work. What would God say about that?" He smiled and didn't skip a beat: "God would not have a problem. Maybe he took that opportunity to put the idea in my head."

Rest in peace, Dr. Folkman, and thank you for giving your best and expecting the best from everyone who was privileged to have crossed paths with you.

Dr. Judah Folkman

Dr. Judah Folkman, who passed away on January 14, 2008. Watch NOVA's film about Dr. Folkman online or go to the companion Web site.

 

Nancy Linde produced "Cancer Warrior," NOVA's program about Judah Folkman's work. Watch the program online or go to the companion Web site.

Note: "Cancer Warrior" was originally broadcast in 2001. While the program focuses mainly on the history of angiogenesis and Dr. Folkman's revolutionary idea to attack cancer via the blood vessels, it also highlights a clinical trial for Endostatin, an early anti-angiogenic drug. Drug trials for Endostatin were halted in 2003, though research work continues to see if this molecule can slow cancer growth.

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