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Emil J Freireich Honored With AACR Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research

PHILADELPHIA – The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) recognized Emil J Freireich, MD, FAACR, with the 2019 AACR Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research during the AACR Annual Meeting 2019, held March 29-April 3 in Atlanta.

Freireich, who retired as professor in the Department of Leukemia, Division of Cancer Medicine, and director of the Adult Leukemia Research Program, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, was honored for his work in establishing combination chemotherapy and neoadjuvant therapy as powerful weapons in treating childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). His discovery that multiple drugs given simultaneously, both during the initial course of treatment and for a year after the patient was in remission, helped transform childhood leukemia into a type of cancer that can often be cured. Today, Freireich’s discoveries are still used in clinical practice, and survival rates for childhood leukemia exceed 90 percent.

“Dr. Freireich is a remarkable physician-scientist who transformed his understanding of the biological mechanisms behind pediatric leukemia into lifesaving cures,” said Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), chief executive officer of the AACR. “His innovations in combining therapies and finding new ways to avoid relapse changed the course of clinical research and saved the lives of entire generations of children. He is deeply deserving of this special honor.”

The AACR Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research was established in 2004 to honor individuals who have made significant fundamental contributions to cancer research, either through a single scientific discovery or a collective body of work. These contributions, whether they have been in research, leadership, or mentorship, must have had a lasting impact on the cancer field and must have demonstrated a lifetime commitment to progress against cancer.

Freireich’S contributions to the treatment of leukemia began in the 1950s when he developed a new strategy to end bleeding in his young patients. He proved that fresh blood rich in platelets was more effective in preventing hemorrhages than older blood that came from blood banks. This discovery changed protocols in hospitals around the country and effectively ended bleeding as a cause of death.

Freireich then launched clinical trials to test whether combining chemotherapeutic agents was more effective than giving the drugs sequentially. He ultimately developed a four-drug regimen to treat pediatric leukemia, and he continued that regimen for a year after remission to kill any residual disease. This strategy, known as early intensification, is still used today.

Later, Freireich became the first to perform leukocyte transfusion and show that peripheral blood stem cells could be engrafted, thus leading to allogeneic bone marrow grafts. He also developed the first continuous-flow blood cell separator.

Freireich earned his bachelor’s degree and his medical degree from the University of Illinois in Chicago. He practiced medicine at Chicago hospitals, then did a fellowship in hematology at Mass Memorial Hospital in Boston. In 1953, he was drafted into the U.S. Army but was allowed to serve by working at the National Institutes of Health. There, he conducted his earliest groundbreaking research on ALL.

In 1965, he joined The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he went on to a remarkable 50-year career. In addition to his research, Freireich became a renowned educator, overseeing the physician-scientist training program and helping develop the curriculum. He retired in 2015 but has remained involved in MD Anderson’s medical education program.

Freireich was inducted as a Fellow of the AACR Academy in 2014. He has been recognized with countless career awards, including the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 1972; the David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award and Lecture in 1976; the de Villiers International Achievement Award from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in 1979; the Jeffrey A. Gottlieb Memorial Award from MD Anderson Cancer Center in 1981; the Charles F. Kettering Prize from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation in 1983; and the First NIH Distinguished Alumni Award in 1990.

He won the Medical Oncology Fellows Outstanding Teacher Award from MD Anderson Cancer Center and the Return of the Child Award from the Leukemia Society of America in 1996; the Charles A. LeMaistre Outstanding Achievement Award in 2000; the Cino del Duca Award, 11th International Congress on Anti-Cancer Treatment in 2001; the Pollin Prize for Pediatric Research from Columbia University in 2003; the Gerald P. Bodey Sr. Distinguished Award in 2005; and the Paul Ehrlich Magic Bullet Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.

Freireich was recognized at the Opening Ceremony of the AACR Annual Meeting.