Four Physicians Honored for Their Historic Contributions to the Treatment of Pediatric Leukemia

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Awards Pollin Prize, the Sole International Prize for Pediatric Research

Dec 19, 2003


NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital has announced the recipients of the Second Annual Pollin Prize in Pediatric Research: four physician-scientists who contributed landmark advances in the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common pediatric cancer. Due to their decades-long efforts beginning in the 1950s, what was once an incurable disease now has a 75-percent survival rate. Furthermore, their treatment strategies have served as a template for numerous other successful cancer therapies.

The 2003 Pollin Prize, the sole international award for advances in children's health care, is awarded to Drs. Emil Frei, Emil J. Freireich, Donald Pinkel, and James F. Holland. An awards ceremony takes place today at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) causes bone marrow to produce cancerous leukemia cells in place of healthy white and red blood cells, leaving the patient vulnerable to infection or uncontrolled bleeding. Every year, the disease is diagnosed in at least 2,000 American children, most commonly between ages of two and six.

By the mid 1950s, more than 50 years after it was first diagnosed and described, ALL was still a death sentence. But, in 1955, at the National Cancer Institute, Drs. Frei and Freireich proposed a revolutionary new approach—using aggressive combinations of drugs to kill cancer cells before they developed resistance. Confirming this theory two years later, Dr. Frei, along with Dr. Holland, developed a treatment protocol and led a clinical trial that demonstrated the first successful means to systematically eradicate leukemia.

Despite this important advance, cancer cells would reappear months later in the patient's central nervous system in the form of leukemic meningitis. In response to this problem, beginning in the 1960s, Dr. Pinkel, working at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, developed a "total therapy" approach in which a treatment would be administered to the central nervous system when the number of leukemia cells was so small as to be undetectable. By 1967, total therapy resulted in a 50-percent cure rate. Dr. Pinkel also innovated "neoadjuvant chemotherapy," the use of chemotherapy to reduce the size of large malignant tumors prior to surgery in order to allow their complete excision. These medical breakthroughs, made by the four physicians while they were between the ages of 28 and 40, contributed to what is today a 75 percent survival rate for ALL.

Dr. Herbert Pardes, President and Chief Executive Officer of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital says, "Through their tireless efforts which resulted in prolonged life for countless children worldwide, the four recipients of the 2003 Pollin Prize embody the true spirit of the award, which recognizes medical research that provides a lasting impact on the health of children."

Dr. Rudolph Leibel, chairman of the selection panel that coordinates the administration of the Pollin Prize, says, "Combination chemotherapy and neoadjuvant chemotherapy are regarded as two of the most important cancer-treatment advances in the past quarter century, serving as a prototype for curative strategies for numerous other cancers." Dr. Leibel is professor of Pediatrics and Chief of the Division of Molecular Genetics at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons.

Dr. Emil Frei is Physician-in-Chief Emeritus at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston; Dr. Emil J Freireich is Professor of Medicine and Laboratory Medicine and Director of the Adult Leukemia Research Program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston; Dr. Donald Pinkel is Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Southern California, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston; and Dr. James F. Holland is Distinguished Professor of Neoplastic Diseases at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

The four physicians have received many individual awards and recognitions for this research. Together they received the Lasker Award in 1972.

About the Pollin Prize

By recognizing outstanding achievement in pediatric biomedical and public health research, and at the same time fostering the work of young investigators, the Pollin Prize seeks to encourage the best scientific minds to address the issues of children's health and illness worldwide, according to Irene and Abe Pollin, creators of the prize.

The Pollin Prize, funded by the Linda and Kenneth Pollin Foundation and administered by NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, consists of a $100,000 award to the recipients and a $100,000 fellowship stipend to be awarded by the recipients to a young investigator at one of their institutions who is working in a related area. The stipend is intended to support a substantial portion of salary and laboratory expenses for two years.

The Pollin family, prominent philanthropists, is perhaps best known as the co-owners of the Washington Wizards basketball team. Irene Pollin, a psychiatric social worker and lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard University, created Medical Crisis Counseling, which treats patients and families coping with chronic illness, and has written several books and articles on crisis counseling and the emotional management of long-term illness. As president and founder of the Linda and Kenneth Pollin Foundation, she serves on a number of national advisory boards and commissions in the fields of mental health and women's health, and is a co-founder and chairperson of the Sister To Sister—Everyone Has A Heart Foundation®, an organization whose aim is to increase women's awareness of heart disease and to provide free cardiac screenings.

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