Stanley Cohen, a Nobel Prize winner and Vanderbilt University distinguished professor of biochemistry, emeritus, died Feb. 5 in Nashville at the age of 97.
Dr. Cohen was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for the discovery of epidermal growth factor (EGF) and its receptor (EGFR). He shared the award with his Washington University colleague Rita Levi-Montalcini.
His research on the growth of cells helped build a foundation for other scientists studying cancer, dementia, and other disorders.
The American Cancer Society provided funding to Dr. Cohen that led to his discovery of EGFR as a tyrosine kinase. Tyrosine kinases are key signaling molecules inside the cell that stimulate the growth of normal and cancerous cells. There are now multiple drugs targeting the EGFR used in treating non-small lung cancer and colorectal cancer. In addition, this research contributed to a better understanding of the link between breast cancer and the expression of the HER-2/neu gene at very high levels. This foundational work ultimately led to the development of Herceptin, the first targeted drug for the treatment of breast cancer to receive FDA approval.
Mutations in the EGF receptors have been linked with certain forms of lung cancer and brain cancer. Using the building blocks Dr. Cohen put in place, researchers have discovered that EGF receptors can be targeted with specific drugs to inhibit their unchecked growth, holding a possible key to treating cancer and other diseases.
Dr. Cohen was born Nov. 17, 1922, in Brooklyn. His father was a tailor, his mother a homemaker. Having had polio as a child, Dr. Cohen walked with a limp throughout his life.
He graduated in 1943 with a double major in chemistry and zoology from Brooklyn College, which he said he could afford only because the college had free tuition at the time. He received a master’s degree in zoology from Ohio’s Oberlin College in 1945 and a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Michigan in 1948. He taught at the University Colorado before joining the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis in 1952. He then went on to Vanderbilt University as an assistant professor and continued his research on cellular growth factors.
Dr. Cohen is survived by his wife, Jan Jordan, three children, and two granddaughters.
Read more about him here.