Stanley Cohen, 1922-2020

Tributes paid to ‘visionary researcher’ who won 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

March 19, 2020
Stanley Cohen
Source: Getty

A pioneering biochemist who helped forge new treatments for cancer has died.

Stanley Cohen was born in the Bronx, New York in 1922 and studied biology and chemistry at Brooklyn College (1943). Even at this early stage, he was fascinated by cell biology and the nature of embryonic development and believed there was great potential in applying chemistry to the understanding of biology.

After briefly working as a bacteriologist in a milk processing plant to save up some money, Professor Cohen went on to an MA in zoology at Oberlin College in Ohio (1945) and then a PhD at the University of Michigan on the metabolism of the earthworm (1948). He would later recall “spending…nights collecting over 5,000 worms from the university campus green”. He also suspected it was his unusual “ability to stomach-tube earthworms” that landed him his first job at the University of Colorado working on metabolic studies of premature infants.

From there, in 1952, Professor Cohen moved to Washington University in St Louis, Missouri as a postdoctoral fellow of the American Cancer Society. A year later, he shifted into the department of zoology and joined forces with Rita Levi-Montalcini, a visiting Italian scientist who had already discovered a nerve growth factor in certain mouse tumours. By building on this work, he discovered a separate epidermal growth factor that caused baby mice to open their eyes earlier than usual.

After joining Vanderbilt University in Tennessee in 1959 as an assistant professor of biochemistry with his own research group, Professor Cohen succeeded in isolating the epidermal growth factor and illuminating the nature of its receptor. It was for these linked and decisive breakthroughs, which have proved crucial in the treatment of cancer, that he and Professor Levi-Montalcini shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Promoted to American Cancer Society research professor in 1976 and distinguished professor in 1986, Professor Cohen remained at Vanderbilt until he retired and became emeritus in 1999. Interim chancellor and provost Susan Wente praised him as “someone I have always looked up to – as a fellow academic who studied cells, a visionary researcher and an optimistic spirit”.

“Dr Cohen’s discovery of the EGF receptor has revolutionised the care and outlook for millions of cancer patients worldwide,” added Jeff Balser, president of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “His Nobel-winning discovery formed the foundation for an entirely new area of research and significantly expanded our understanding of multiple types of diseases.”

Professor Cohen died on 6 February and is survived by his wife, Jan Jordan, three children and two granddaughters.

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