The Evolution of the Cancer Research Revolution

SWCRF founder & CEO Samuel Waxman, M.D., reflects on how cancer research has changed over 40 years.



It’s hard to believe that 40 years have passed since I founded the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation (SWCRF).  Investment in scientific research is transforming cancer treatment at an accelerated pace.  Improved technologies and new treatments have brought new hope for the scientific community’s quest for cures for all forms of cancer. 

Back in the 1970s, cancer treatment relied on surgery, radiation therapy and empirical combinations of chemotherapy. There was predictable success in some blood malignancies, pediatric cancer and breast cancer and much was learned from large clinical trials.  Since treatments lagged behind the exciting breakthroughs in tumor and molecular biology, there was only modest improvement in patient outcomes in the most common forms of cancer. 

Moving scientific research from the lab to the bedside is a tortuous, time-consuming and expensive journey. Back then, it was deemed more profitable to modify old drugs than to pursue unproven, scientific-based, novel treatment. This philosophy made it difficult for scientists to obtain funding for unique projects with the potential to transform the world of cancer treatment. In 1976, a visionary executive from the fashion industry, Irving Alpert, saw the potential of the research I was doing at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Irving donated the funds that launched the SWCRF, which would over the span of four decades award nearly $90 million to 200 researchers throughout the world. 

My lab team at Mount Sinai in 1989

In the 1980s, my idea that scientists could accelerate the pace of their progress by collaborating across research institutes was proven when I teamed up with researchers in Shanghai to discover a successful differentiation therapy for acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). I shared my work in leukemia cell differentiation – reprogramming malfunctioning cells to return them to normal behavior – with visiting scientists from the Shanghai Second Medical University, whom I hosted at my lab at Mount Sinai. I also began a long collaboration with the distinguished researcher Dr. Zhen-Yi Wang, followed by my work with Drs. Zhu Chen and Sai-Juan Chen, leading to our breakthrough combination therapy of arsenic trioxide and retinoic acid, which improved the five-year survival rate of APL patients from 25 percent to 95 percent. This treatment remains the standard of care for the disease. 

Flash forward to 2016 and we’re seeing history repeat itself as researchers around the world are making discoveries that echo the success of our APL breakthrough, resulting in promising new clinical trials for potential targeted cancer drugs. Research funded by the SWCRF is paving the way in the new age of targeted therapy, which directs treatment strategies to the causative molecular mutations responsible for all forms of cancer. Thus we now have the beginning of applying personalized cancer medicine. This revolutionary cancer research is the result of multidisciplinary collaboration, a philosophy that has long been central to the SWCRF mission. The generosity of donors who share our commitment to research has, of course, played a crucial role in the progress we’ve made, and I am very thankful to the supporters who have collaborated with us through the years. 

Throughout this fortieth anniversary year, I will be sharing some personal stories from my years as a physician-scientist. These anecdotes will illustrate how research funded by the SWCRF has impacted today’s revolutionary breakthroughs in treatment. 


With best regards,



Samuel Waxman, M.D.

Founder and CEO

Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation

Distinguished Service Professor

Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Honorary Professor

Shanghai Jiao Tong University