Dr. George Canellos

Dr. George Canellos is one of the founding father’s of modern oncology. In 2011 he was honored by Castle Connolly Medical Ltd. for Lifetime Achievement, at The National Physician of the Year Awards.

Dr. George Canellos is one of the founding fathers of modern oncology. His passion for research has set the standards for the thousands of physicians around the world who have followed in his footsteps.

George Canellos was born in Boston, and attended Boston Latin School before attending Harvard University. Dr. Canellos received his medical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons in 1960. In 1964 at The National Cancer Institute, Dr. Canellos along with Dr. Vincent De Vita, developed the earliest combination chemotherapies that lead to the first successful treatment of Hodgkin’s and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas. The team also developed CMF, another combination therapy that lead to one of the first successful regimens for the treatment of early breast cancer. The regimen set new standards of cancer care, and is still in use today.

As former chair of the Leukemia Committee of the Cancer and Leukemia Group B, a national American cooperative trials group, Dr. Canellos initiated many practice changing clinical trials of cancer therapies, including the first successful therapy for lymphoid transformation of chronic myeloid leukemia.

As President of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and editor-in-chief for the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Dr. Canellos had major impact on formulating the direction and intellectual depth of modern cancer research.

Dr. Canellos came to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in 1975 and served as the founding Chief of Medical Oncology for 20 years. He is presently a senior clinician at the Dana Faber Cancer Institute and The Brigham and Women’s Hospital as well as the William Rosenberg’s professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

A Personal Perspective by Stuart Diamond, Editor-in Chief, Empowered Doctor.

Lest we forget, 50 years ago “”Cancer”” was still a forbidden word. A word that could only be spoken about in hushed whispers. A diagnosis that was frightening – with death thought of as the one and only foreseeable outcome.

Today, our societal attitudes have changed dramatically – with many cancers now either manageable or even curable – and with many more breakthroughs promised just over the horizon.

In addition, there are literally thousands of clinical research trials conducted every year exploring every aspect of the disease – from the diseases’ most basic components and origins to the spiritual well-being of patients. Cancer treatment now is also big business with big pharmaceutical and other companies pouring billions of dollars into research, seeking out the next blockbuster therapies, not to mention the hundreds of millions spent in marketing and public relations.

That was not always the case. Up until recently, breakthroughs in cancer treatments were rare and for the most part had limited impact. Most private businesses, such as drug companies, were not yet the giant conglomerates they are today. They did not have the wherewithal or resources to invest in major cancer research, as there was no clear model to produce financially lucrative treatments that could recoup investment.

That was all to change when the US Congress vastly increased the funding of The National Institute of Health in the 1950s. One of its missions was to take on the most intractable medical problems like cancer – and to set up research projects that were simply too big and expensive for private industry to undertake. It would be like asking private industry to plan and execute a mission to put men on the moon. That was how far-fetched basic cancer research seemed at the time.

Some of the first targets were the most devastating cancers – pediatric leukemia, breast cancer and Hodgkin’s disease. The researchers chosen were the most brilliant researchers and clinicians of their time — young minds set to the task to conquer the impossible. Dr. Gordon Zubrod, the NIH’s director recruited physician-researchers whose names would become legendary in the field of oncology.

Drs. Emil Frei, Emil Freireich, and James Holland, developed the first combination chemotherapeutic therapies. After treatment with a single chemotherapeutic agent a patient might go into remission, but often the cancer might return – the cancer cells now more resistant to the original agent, and deadlier than ever. The team theorized that a combination of agents could destroy the variations of the cells that might escape the effect of a single agent.

Their early successes induced long-term remissions in children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Over time the regimens were refined. And ALL in children, once 100% fatal is largely considered a curable disease.

Subsequently, Dr. George Canellos and his colleague Vincent DeVita demonstrated that nitrogen mustard, vincristine, procarbazine and prednisone – known as the MOPP regimen – could cure patients with Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Similarly, they created a combination cocktail that was one of the first successful treatments of breast cancer. Currently, nearly all successful cancer chemotherapy regimens use this paradigm of multiple drugs given simultaneously, called combination chemotherapy or polychemotherapy.

The 1950s and 60s at the National Institute were true pioneering days in terms of cancer research. “”Oncology”” was not yet even a medical subspecialty – cancer therapies were usually done as part of other treatment options – post surgery, for example.

Perhaps the detailed painstaking work that lays the foundation for breakthroughs in cancer did not have the flair and visual dynamics of the space race, but it is no less as a compelling story – for it is a race against time. For with every minute saved, thousands more men, women, and children are alive today.