10 Most Influential People in Cancer Research

Cancer is a disease that affects everyone. If you do not develop cancer in your lifetime, you will know someone who suffers from this disease, according to the Cancer Research Institute. The good news is that cancer research has made remarkable strides within the past half century, although cancer continues to claim millions of lives each year.

Cancer researchers work on various types of cancer as well as on different methods for cures. While some researchers may be very public (famous and infamous), others remain behind the scenes. Some individuals, as you’ll see below, never step foot in a laboratory. Yet, the ten most influential people in cancer research — among dozens of others not listed — all have helped to make major strides in understanding cancer and refining cures to this disease.

  1. Nancy BrinkerNancy Goodman Brinker: You may not recognize Ms. Brinker’s name and she spent little time in a laboratory, but you may be very familiar with her sister’s name — Susan G. Komen. When Susan died of breast cancer in her mid-thirties, Nancy promised her sister that she would do all she could to help the half-million women worldwide who are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. Today, research grants dispensed by the Susan G. Komen Foundation have contributed to new treatments that have led to a marked decrease in the mortality rate. In August this year, President Obama awarded Nancy (who is a breast cancer survivor) with the Medal of Freedom for her work.
  2. Dr. Bernard FisherDr. Bernard Fisher: Dr. Fisher is widely credited as the driving force that brought clinical trials and statistical methodology to breast cancer research since the 1970s. However, his association with the University of Pittsburgh colored his history for years. That university effectively halted his research with a charge of publishing false data. Although that charge was defeated in court, it tainted his published papers for years. Despite this upheaval, Dr. Fisher received the American Association for Cancer Research Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research and he most recently won the Jacobson Award in 2009, which honors living surgeons who have been innovators of a new development or technique in any field of surgery.
  3. Dr. Edwin FisherDr. Edwin Fisher: This man is Dr. Bernard Fisher’s brother (noted above). The two brothers started the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project (NSABP) with the sole purpose of improving women’s chances of surviving breast cancer and to treat bowel cancer. Although Edwin (1923-2008) worked in a lab out of view, he trained thousands of pathologists and thousands more patients benefited from his research. Through clinical trials at the NSABP, Edwin and his brother proved that breast cancer is a systemic disease that, rather than metastasizing in an orderly way, metastasizes unpredictably. Thanks to this work, it is now accepted that a lumpectomy with radiation treatment is just as affective in treating breast cancer as a radical mastectomy.
  4. Judah Folkman MDDr. Moses Judah Folkman: Known as the “Cancer Warrior,” Dr. Folkman (1933-2008) stumbled upon a hidden secret about how cancer grows in 1961. His theory, called angiogenesis, showed that blocking blood flow to a tumor provided one way to treat the disease. Although his idea has yet to reach full fruition, thanks to lack of funds and some controversy, his theory has produced new research, products and help for many patients who have trouble producing blood vessels. Angiogenesis inhibitors are now approved by the FDA in the U.S., for cancer and for macular degeneration and have received approval in 27 other countries.
  5. Robert GalloDr. Robert Charles Gallo: This biomedical researcher started out in clinical work until he began to work with children suffering with leukemia (his sister, Judith, died in 1949 from childhood leukemia). From there, he spent more time in the lab and, by 1980, discovered the first virus that causes cancer. The HTLV-1 causes T-cell leukemia in humans. He also discovered, along with Luc Montagnier, the immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Gallo went even further to establish that the virus causes AIDS. However, disputes over who had originally discovered the AIDS test colored Gallo’s career. Although he was vindicated of any guilt, he was passed over for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008 – the same year that Harald zur Hausen won a portion of that award (see below). Gallo remains controversial as some Internet pundits praise him as an “AIDS saint,” and others accuse him of cooperating with the government in creating an AIDS virus for biochemical warfare.
  6. Dr. Harald zur HausenDr. Harald zur Hausen: Professor zur Hausen has a special interest in infection-induced malignancies. He showed the role of papillomaviruses in cervical cancer and discovered a larger number of novel virus types. He was award a Nobel Prize for medicine for his work that went against established opinion about the cause of cervical cancer. Harald zur Hausen has been an honorary professor of the University of Heidelberg since 1988 and is a member of its Faculty of Medicine.
  7. Steven McCarrollSteven McCarroll: This young man is one to watch in the field of DNA and its affects on several disease areas. The most recent discovery, made by McCarroll and a team of researchers, was made in November this year. Working with a test group of several siblings, this team discovered that bone marrow transplants – such as the ones received in cancer treatment – will only work when a gene called UGT2B17 is present in both donor and recipient. This momentous discovery explains the existence of a serious side-effect known as graft-versus-host disease, where immune cells from the donor attack tissues in the recipient. McCarroll has made this work as first author part of his postdoctoral Broad Institute’s Lawrence H. Summers Fellowship at Harvard.
  8. Rita Levi-MontalciniRita Levi-Montalcini: This Italian neurologist, along with colleague Stanley Cohen, received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). She conducted her research at Washington University in St. Louis, under the supervision of Professor Viktor Hamburger. It was at this university’s laboratories in 1952 where she isolated the NGF from observations of certain cancerous tissues that cause extremely rapid growth of more nerve cells. Levi-Montalcini is currently the oldest living and the longest-lived Nobel laureate.
  9. Dr. Robert WeinbergRobert Allan Weinberg, PhD: Dr. Weinberg is most well known for his discoveries of the first human oncogene, a gene that causes normal cells to form tumors, and the first tumor suppressor gene. He a founding member of the Whitehead Institute and he recently joined the advisory board for Cornerstone Pharmaceuticals, Inc. Dr. Weinberg also is a Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research at MIT and American Cancer Society Research Professor.
  10. Dr. Walter WillettWalter Willett, MD, DrPH: Dr. Willett is Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and Chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. While other doctors looking for cures studied viruses and cell growth, Dr. Willett focused on nutrition. He has become one of the most cited nutritionists internationally, because he showed that a Mediterranean diet rich in tomato sauce and olive oil may help to prevent prostate cancer.
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