publication date: Jan. 11, 2019
John Mendelsohn understood the urgency of moving discoveries out of the laboratory and into patients
By Margaret L. Kripke
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the city of Houston, and the world of oncology have lost a great leader in Dr. John Mendelsohn, who contributed greatly to his institution, his community, and his field of expertise.
He was a pioneer in the development of anti-receptor antibodies to control tumor growth. He was the first to produce an antibody against the EGF receptor and demonstrate its anti-tumor activity in model systems. This served as a template for the subsequent development of antibodies against a host of growth factor receptors, and many of these are now used to treat a variety of cancers.
Not only was John an accomplished scientist, he was a compassionate and caring physician. These attributes, made him a great role model for physician-scientists. During his tenure, the stature of MD Anderson soared in the area of translational research.
John understood the importance and urgency of moving discoveries out of the laboratory and into patients, and he focused the institution on this goal. He was helped in this mission by his colleague, friend, and tennis partner, Dr. Waun Ki Hong, the former head of the Division of Medicine, whom we also lost earlier this year. Together, they developed the premier translational research effort in cancer in the country, focused on partnerships between staff, clinicians and laboratory scientists.
T. Boone Pickens and John Mendelsohn discuss construction of the T. Boone Pickens Academic Tower, which opened in 2008. – Photo courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center
Under John’s leadership, the institution grew tremendously—in physical size, people, patients, philanthropy, clinical trials, and research grants. I was privileged to work with John as the executive vice president and chief academic officer for nearly 10 years during this exciting time.
He found it hard, if not impossible, to say “no” to a good idea, even if it meant more growth and added expense. Some thought the institution was growing too large and wondered how it could be sustained.
At one point, John was accused of having “relentless optimism” in his pursuit of growth of clinical projects, new research programs, and global collaborations. It is true that John had tremendous optimism (I often reminded him that “hope is not a strategy”), but he also had tremendous energy and passion for cancer research and treatment.
He was truly visionary in wanting to extend MD Anderson’s reach and provide its expertise beyond the walls of the institution, not just to other parts of the country, but to other parts of the world as well.
He was determined that MD Anderson should be an institution that focused not only on diagnosis and treatment, its historical strengths, but one that offered the full spectrum of services across the continuum of cancer, from prevention and early detection all the way to care of cancer survivors and end of life care. And he worked tirelessly to ensure that these were evidence-based and research-driven.
It is somewhat ironic that his own demise came at the hand of the very adversary he spent his entire career fighting against, and that his last act at MD Anderson was to experience firsthand the benefits of programs that he so diligently fostered.
John and Anne Mendelsohn in 2004, when he received the Bristol-Myers Squibb Freedom to Discover Award for Distinguished Achievements in Cancer Research.
– Photo courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center
One of John’s great gifts was the ability to inspire people. When he spoke to lay audiences about cancer research, he made even the most complex topic sound exciting. I remember once hearing him talk about “cancer as a disease of genes” in an after-dinner speech at a fundraiser.
People in the audience could not wait to donate to this effort in cancer research by the time he finished. He was also a great listener. Always a gatherer of facts, he regularly listened to all sides and weighed all the options prior to making a difficult decision.
Outside MD Anderson, John was an opera fan, and he and his wife Anne, whom he adored, were enthusiastic contributors to the arts and educational efforts in Houston.
If I had to characterize John with a single phrase, it would be that he was a man of boundless energy and enthusiasm.
I loved working with him, and I sincerely hope that he and Ki Hong are now playing tennis together in heaven. Both of them will be greatly missed by those of us who remain.
The author is professor emerita, former executive vice president and chief academic officer at MD Anderson Cancer Center.