Dr Lee Wattenberg, 'Father Of Chemoprevention,' Dies At 92

Issue 25 Summer/Fall 2015

Pioneered the investigation of synthetic and dietary compounds that help prevent malignancy

Dr. Lee Wattenberg

It may not be hyperbole to say that Dr. Lee Wattenberg helped the field of cancer prevention science begin. After his passing from complications of Parkinson’s disease at age 92 last December, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) described this pioneering researcher as the “father of cancer prevention.”

Wattenberg’s impact was first felt in a landmark review of 36 years of animal studies published in 1966 in Cancer Research. That review looked at whether compounds – many found naturally in foods – might help cells ward off cancer, a process Wattenberg labeled “chemoprophylaxis.”

Wattenberg began with the cell itself, investigating processes that trigger “irreversibility” in cells, and how those processes might be short-circuited. Sometimes synthetic chemical compounds served as chemopreventive agents, but often his research pointed to the power of compounds found in everyday foods such as cabbage, broccoli, garlic and even coffee.

Speaking to the Toronto Globe and Mail in 1996, Wattenberg predicted that, “the story in the future will be in prevention. We would like to develop agents that hit early in the cancer process, to prevent the damage.”

Trial-and-error investigations often uncovered promising chemopreventive compounds, such as the food preservation agent BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), but they often yielded surprises, too. For example, the nutrient beta carotene – a hoped-for cancer fighter – proved to actually raise the risk of lung cancer.

All of this work blazed new trails in determining what types of diet or medications might keep cancer at bay. “About two-thirds of all cancers are preventable.

Because of Lee Wattenberg’s dedication to and belief in the promise of cancer prevention, the field has taken its rightful place as one of the most important areas of cancer research,” said Dr. Margaret Foti, CEO of the AACR.

Born in New York City, Wattenberg received his medical degree from the University of Minnesota and remained there as a distinguished faculty member for more than 60 years. He chaired the first cancer prevention symposium at the 1979 AACR Annual Meeting, and went on to take a central role in the organization’s new focus on prevention, serving as AACR President in 1992 and 1993.

He was the recipient of numerous awards, including the AACR American Cancer Society Award for Outstanding Contributions to Cancer Prevention in 1996 and an AACR Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Prevention in 2010. Watttenberg published hundred of papers and served as an editor of Cancer Research and Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

Despite these achievements, colleagues and students remember Wattenberg as a self-effacing man, always eager to help foster new talent in the field.

That may be his most enduring legacy. As Foti put it, “Lee has inspired the work of a whole generation of cancer prevention researchers, which, in addition to his own personal contributions, will leave a lasting legacy of saving lives from cancer.”