How NOT to make a good impression on the greatest cancer scientist alive



I just got some really exciting news from some old labmates of mine: Judah Folkman, the father of angiogenesis therapy in cancer, has agreed to speak at my alma mater!

Who is Judah Folkman and Why Should I Care?

To understand the significance of this event, please allow me to give you a brief cell biology lesson: The body’s cells are surrounded by capillaries, or tiny blood vessels, which nourish the cells and carry off their waste. These capillaries are made up of endothelial cells, and because these endothelial cells generally never divide, the blood vasculature pretty much stays the same. Angiogenesis refers to the few times (like during wound healing or menstruation) when these sleepy endothelial cells actually do decide to wake up and start dividing. Like anything that has to go to work after a long nap, the cells get everything they need to get done in a short, controlled burst, and then tune right back out again.

Back in the 1960’s, it was generally thought that the living cells that comprise tumors were just feeding off the blood supply of normal tissue. Dr. Folkman was the first to hypothesize that perhaps these unwanted tumor cells were surviving due to angiogenic activity. Turns out that he was right, and a new way to approach cancer treatment was born.

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A flurry of anti-angiogenic approaches have found success not just in cancer, but in but heart disease, obesity, and infertility as well. Researchers in Dr. Folkman’s laboratory have been in the forefront of the “stop ’em where it starts” approach to management and treatment, and both the man and his research have been highlighted in books both by him and others, a documentary, several news stories, and most recently, new business development.

The Judah Folkman Lunchbox

Because he was not afraid to try new approaches when almost everyone in his field thought he was wrong, I’ve considered Dr. Folkman to be a Rock Star Scientist in my eyes for years. Both my husband and I had done our graduate work in an cancer angiogenesis laboratory, so we used to joke that getting the thumbs-up approval from Dr. Folkman would trump even a Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Fast forward a few years to this past April when I presented my work at the American Association of Cancer Research Annual Meeting for the first time. Until my labmates and I got our conference programs in the Los Angeles Conference Center, I had no idea that it was the 100th anniversary of AACR and that Dr. Folkman had been invited to be a keynote speaker. After briefly hyperventilating, I planned my entire schedule around seeing him speak. When I saw him at his sunrise session talk, he was both humble and instantly likeable as he spoke not just about his recent work but that of his collaborators.

Since I figured I’d never get the chance to see him in person again, I hung around afterwards with a small crowd of scientists. As I eavesdropped on the other people talking to him, I realized that each person he was talking to was asking for his expert opinion on research approaches or clinical practices. They were all dressed up and from big-name institutions. I was some scruffy kid who came from an cancer center no one’s ever heard of — and I had nothing brilliant to say! When it came to my turn in line, I said, in true Lesly-fashion, the first thing that came to mind: “Dr. Folkman, I’m Lesly, and me and my husband think that you’re so great that we would buy a lunchbox with your face on it!”

And there it was for all to see: my pedicured foot inserted neatly in my mouth.

Dr. Folkman laughed, and I quickly recovered to ask him what I was really interested in: If you’re in a situation where everyone thinks you’re wrong and your work is no good, how do you recover from the blows to your confidence? This was, as I told him, advice that I was asking on behalf of my husband who was stinging a bit at the time from spending the past few months trotting around the country for job interviews in places he never thought he’d ever have a shot.

Dr. Folkman told me that used to get down a bit, too, and a lot his support came from his wife who sagely told him that the only other person’s opinion who he should really take into account when it came to one’s self-confidence was hers and not to bother with the others. Then, he gave me his business card and told us to drop by and see him sometime if we were ever in Boston. My husband and I hung Dr. Folkman’s business card on our refrigerator to remind us that work is, after all, just work, and home is really what matters.

The story of the Judah Folkman lunchbox and how he took the time to offer advice to a starry-eyed babbler like myself circulated through the laboratories where I worked like wildfire, and not long after the conference, my school’s graduate student organization program invited him to speak at our university. Because no one on Dr. Folkman’s caliber had ever spoken our little university before, many of the professors thought it was silly to waste our time. They must have been pretty surprised to hear that he accepted our invitation. I can’t wait to go back and see him again and show him the Judah Folkman lunchbox that my friends made me!

Picture courtesy of the National Cancer Institute.

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NOTE: The contents in this blog are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or a substitute for professional care. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before making changes to any existing treatment or program. Some of the information presented in this blog may already be out of date.
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