John Mendelsohn, president emeritus of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and 2018 Tang Prize Laureate in Biopharmaceutical Science passed away in Houston on January 7 at the age of 82. The Tang Prize Foundation and its founder Samuel Yin offer its sincerest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.
During his beginnings in biology, Mendelsohn had the good fortune to have James Watson, one of the pioneers who identified the structure of DNA, as his mentor. Watson taught him to “think big” and even convinced him to go into the field of medicine. Watson’s advice was not in vain, as Mendelsohn went on to have great success in the medical application of biological science.
While at UC San Diego, Mendelsohn and his colleague with Gordon Sato conceived the idea that antibodies targeting epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) may be an effective strategy for cancer treatment. Mendelsohn and his team conducted preclinical research and developed the anti-EGFR antibody cetuximab (Erbitux®), which has been a successful drug against certain cancers.
In addition to his work in medical science, Mendelsohn acted in several managing roles at the top cancer institutions in the US, including the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He acted as president of the MD Anderson Cancer Center from 1996 to 2011, a full 15 years and three terms. During his tenure, the center was the foremost cancer institution in the US.
Mendelsohn was unable to attend the 2018 Tang Prize awarding due to previous health issues. His son, Jeff Mendelsohn, represented him at the event, and noted during the acceptance speech that his father “lived each day so as to look forward to the greatest hope and the least regret.”
Mendelsohn did not accept many interviews, especially later in life, though with the announcement of the Tang Prize he was filmed for a short documentary of his life and work. During which, he talks about the drug Erbitux, saying that there is no perfect treatment for cancer at present, though the presence of new drugs shows how certain fields of medicine become important. He also admitted the difficulties of research, saying that more often than not, ideas do not work, but that he and his team were extremely fortunate to have seen good results on several occasions.
Three joint recipients received the prize in Biopharmaceutical Science in 2018: Tony Hunter (UC San Diego), Brian J. Druker (Oregon Health & Science University), and John Mendelsohn. The prize was awarded for each of the independent contributions of the three in targeted treatment for cancer therapy. Targeted therapy originated with a discovery by Hunter in 1979—tyrosine phosphorylation and that the oncogene src is a tyrosine kinase. Druker and Mendelsohn further cultivated the original discovery of Hunter’s and were essential in developing what we use in therapies today.
Please visit the link below to view Mendelsohn and the other laureates in the 2018 Tang Prize Documentary in Biopharmaceutical Science (Mandarin version) :
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HeKEFGOiEzY Documentary of English version will be released in April on Tang Prize Official YouTube Channel.