February 6, 2020

Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Stanley Cohen dies at 97

Vanderbilt University biochemist Stanley Cohen, PhD, whose discovery of epidermal growth factor (EGF) and its receptor earned him a Nobel Prize and opened the door to a new class of cancer therapies, died Wednesday, Feb. 5, in Nashville. He was 97.

Vanderbilt University biochemist Stanley Cohen, PhD, whose discovery of epidermal growth factor (EGF) and its receptor earned him a Nobel Prize and opened the door to a new class of cancer therapies, died Wednesday, Feb. 5, in Nashville. He was 97.

Stanley Cohen, PhD

Dr. Cohen, a distinguished professor of Biochemistry, emeritus, shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with his former colleague, Rita Levi-Montalcini, MD. Dr. Cohen was Vanderbilt’s second Nobel laureate in Medicine, following Earl Sutherland, MD, who won in 1971.

“Dr. Cohen’s discovery of the EGF receptor has revolutionized the care and outlook for millions of cancer patients worldwide,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and CEO for Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

“His Nobel-winning discovery formed the foundation for an entirely new area of research and significantly expanded our understanding of multiple types of diseases,” Balser said. “Despite his enormous success, Dr. Cohen remained humble and was a generous mentor to generations of scientists who followed in his footsteps.”

“Stanley Cohen is someone I have always looked up to—as a fellow academic who studied cells, a visionary researcher and an optimistic spirit,” said Interim Chancellor and Provost Susan Wente, PhD. “He advanced scientific inquiry in many ways, saving countless lives, inspiring others and earning him the Nobel Prize. His work shows that bold research can have a real impact on our world and the people within it, and it will forever connect him to Vanderbilt’s mission.”

Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, Executive Vice President for Research at VUMC, director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and Benjamin F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology, joined the Biochemistry faculty in 1994 while Dr. Cohen was still active in the laboratory.

“He was a role model for all of us — a master of distilling observations and data to generate refined hypotheses, which when he tested in his lab revealed amazing insights to biochemistry and biology,” Pietenpol said.

Lawrence Marnett, PhD, Dean of Basic Sciences, University Professor and Mary Geddes Stahlman Professor of Cancer Research, said Dr. Cohen “was an extraordinary scientist and a great colleague who was loved by everyone at Vanderbilt. Stan’s work not only provided key insights into how cells divide but it led to the development of many drugs that are used to treat cancer. It was a privilege to have him as a colleague and we celebrate his accomplishments and his humanity.”

Dr. Cohen was born on Nov. 17, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father was a tailor and his mother a homemaker. A polio survivor from childhood, the young Stanley Cohen was determined to persevere.

He double-majored in chemistry and biology at Brooklyn College, received a master’s degree in zoology from Oberlin College and in 1948 earned a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

A turning point in Dr. Cohen’s career came when he accepted a postdoctoral position in the laboratory of Viktor Hamburger, MD, a pioneer in the study of nerve growth at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

While working in the mid-1950s with Dr. Levi-Montalcini, whose Nobel Prize was awarded for her discovery of nerve growth factor, Dr. Cohen stumbled upon another factor — EGF — that stimulated epidermal growth and caused baby mice to open their eyes earlier than normal.

After joining the Vanderbilt faculty in 1959, Dr. Cohen isolated EGF and characterized its receptor with Graham Carpenter, PhD, professor of Biochemistry, emeritus.

“Stanley was a unique person and an unbelievably focused yet creative scientist,” Carpenter said. “He taught me how to think about what was really important, yet within the realm of feasible. A great experimentalist, he made a real difference in science and medicine.”

Today the EGF receptor is the target for a growing number of cancer drugs. Families of EGF-like proteins and their receptors also are being studied for their potential role in preventing heart failure and bowel damage, slowing the progression of kidney disease, and promoting liver regeneration.

“Many new things are found by accident,” Dr. Cohen told a group of high school students in 2007. “If you’re prepared to see the accident, you can find it.”

Raymond C. Harris, MD, the Ann and Roscoe R. Robinson Professor of Medicine and director of research in the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension, said Dr. Cohen “was really the epitome of a scientist, to be focused and committed and to follow the science wherever it goes. He was a beacon for me throughout my research career.”

In 1985, Robert Coffey, MD, was considering a move from the Mayo Clinic to Vanderbilt when he met with Cohen and asked if a person with his clinical training “could accomplish anything worthwhile in the lab.”

“He looked at me,” Coffey recalled in 2011, “cupped his hands over his eyes (his characteristic focusing gesture, I was to learn), and said, ‘Yes, if you do two things. One, pay careful attention to your data and, two, be lucky.’ This was the best scientific advice I ever received.”

Today Coffey is Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and principal investigator of Vanderbilt’s Gastrointestinal SPORE (Specialized Program of Research Excellence) grant funded by the National Cancer Institute.

“He was one of the kindest, thoughtful men I have ever known and one of my best friends,” said Marlene Jayne, long-time Biochemistry Department administrator who worked with Dr. Cohen for 38 years.

The grant from the National Institutes of Health that supported his EGF research for nearly four decades was numbered 007. “I often teased him that his 007 gave more to the world than James Bond’s,” she told the Biochemistry Student Association in 2016. “He really liked that.”

Early on the morning of October 10, 1986, she and her husband Bill were awakened by a phone call from Dr. Cohen. Three times he said, “We won the prize!” Still groggy from sleep, she didn’t understand until he said, “Marlene, the Nobel Prize! Now get to the office as quick as you can!

“It is my belief that his work will go on until maybe someday some of our dreaded diseases will come to an end,” Jayne concluded. “That was Stanley’s wish; not making a lot of money but helping humanity.”

Dr. Cohen won other major awards including the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, which he shared with Dr. Levi-Montalcini, and the President’s National Medal of Science, which was presented in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. In 2016 he was inducted into the Tennessee Healthcare Hall of Fame.

In addition to his wife, Cohen is survived by three children and two granddaughters.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Stanley Cohen Innovation Fund at Vanderbilt University, established to support innovative and high-risk research.