How The foundation Got Its Start
How do you get a Foundation named after you? That's a question that Dr. Waxman is often asked. Below, he answers questions about his early research and how the Foundation came to be.
What was the initial focus of your research?
I started out studying vitamin deficiencies. In particular, I was interested in the way vitamin B-12 and folic acid could reverse severe anemia caused by a deficiency in these vitamins.
What happened to shift your focus to cancer?
Like a lot of things that happen in science, it was serendipity. Another researcher in the lab where I was working was thawing a frozen culture of leukemia cells—and forgot to wash off a chemical preservative called DMSO. This “accident” caused an unexpected reaction—the diseased cells were transformed into functioning red blood cells. It was one of the first examples of a chemically-induced change in a leukemia cell. I began to believe that if we could reverse disorders like anemia, we could do the same with leukemia.
It was the beginning of differentiation therapy, reversing cancer cells so that they become normal. I became to believe that this was an alternative to surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy—and that one day, it would bring about a cancer cure.
How did the Foundation get started?
It was the early 1970s. I met Barry Finn, the uncle of a young man who I had successfully treated for Hodgkin’s disease. He asked me how I got funding for my research—and was shocked to learn that hospitals don’t fund researchers. If I didn’t get outside grants, I didn’t get money and the work had to stop. He asked me if I had ever thought of creating a Foundation. Of course, I hadn’t.
But he arranged for me to meet his father-in-law, Irving Alpert, who was in the fashion and textile business. I remember the day I walked into their showroom in the garment district. Irving had a cigar in his mouth and sat at the head of a big table, surrounded by five other men. He said, “I hear you do good work. I want to help.”
Then Mr. Alpert turned to his lawyer and said, “Write him a check for $25,000.” He turned to me and said, “We’ll name the Foundation after you. By the way, what’s your name?”
And that was how the SWCRF got started.
Why is collaboration between researchers so important to you—and to the Foundation?
I don’t think science works well without collaboration. Each lab has its own particular strength or expertise. Put two or more labs together—and we all benefit. That’s the way the Foundation works. We find researchers with talent who have a track record—we start them working on their own with the understanding that they will have to collaborate. I believe this helps us move science to clinical importance rapidly.
That’s what happened to me in the 1970s when I first collaborated with researchers in China. Several visiting scientists from Shanghai Second Medical University were working in my lab. The researchers were hungry for science and eager to learn. In my lab, they learned about cell differentiation and reprogramming—and when they went back to China, they started to work in this area. We even sent equipment and agents to China that they didn’t have.
I was studying differentiation as a treatment for malignant disease—in particular, investigating the use of retinoic acid, a vitamin A derivative, as a treatment for acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). In the early 1980s, I established a close working relationship with Wang Zhen Yi, who was then President of the Shanghai Second Medical University and Director of the Shanghai Institute of Hematology. Together, we planned the use of trans retinoic acid to treat APL. Within a short time, Dr. Wang and his group used a form of trans retinoic acid that was available in China (but not in the U.S.) that proved to be effective. They treated 15 patients, all of whom went into remission.
I went on to work with Dr. Zhu Chen, who took over the leadership of the Shanghai Institute of Hematology and became one of the major health leaders in China. Dr. Chen and I, working with others, explored the use of arsenic trioxide, a natural substance that had been used medicinally in China for over 2,400 years, to treat APL in patients when retinoic acid failed. Arsenic trioxide was especially effective since it not only caused leukemia cells to function like healthy cells, but also made the cancer cells die.
By 2005, we had shown that a combination therapy— that included both retinoic acid and arsenic trioxide—cured 95% of patients with APL. It is now the standard treatment for this disease—and no chemotherapy is needed by most patients.
What drives you to do this work?
Within the science world, the Foundation is unique. I am a physician-scientist. I keep up with both the science and the clinical world. I’m passionate about this because I want to cure cancer. In the world of science, getting a Waxman grant is a good thing. We do more than give money. We bring researchers together. In the world of science, we have an impact. Treating patients is what drives me.
You say that you have been a lucky person. Can you explain that?
I often tell people that the cure for APL is a story of luck and chance. I am a lucky person, but I don’t believe in luck. Luck is opportunity. It’s there all the time, but you have to be ready for it. You have to be ready to grab it.