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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A man who fundamentally changed the way we understand and treat cancer has died. Dr. Judah Folkman was 74. For years he endured ridicule from his scientific peers for his theory that tumors depend on a blood supply and in fact that they recruit their own blood supply.

In 2001, Dr. Folkman told NPR he continued his research without knowing if it would pay off.

(Soundbite of recorded interview)

Dr. JUDAH FOLKMAN (Cancer Researcher): We always said there's a fine line between persistence and obstinacy in research, and you'll never know when you've crossed that.

BLOCK: Dr. David Nathan worked with Judah Folkman at Children's Hospital in Boston starting in the 1960's. Back then Folkman was still developing his groundbreaking theory that tumors feed on their own blood supply.

Doctor DAVID NATHAN (Former Colleague of Dr. Judah Folkman; President Emeritus, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute): By the time he enunciated that idea in the '70s, most people thought it was just a wild idea. And there was a tremendous amount of criticism of him, not just for that idea, but for the whole idea that chemicals could be isolated that would stimulate blood vessel growth. I mean, there was some critics who said, look, I can throw anything into the eye of an animal and get a red eye. What does that mean?

BLOCK: What did he say to those doubters and what did he say to you about hearing those doubts?

Dr. NATHAN: He would always smile. Judah loved ideas. He love to dream about new approaches. He is — he was one of the paradigm shifters of our time. He loved to challenge orthodoxy. So, he was perfectly pleasant about it. He didn't object to people repelling his notions. He just get another idea.

BLOCK: There's a funny anecdote he tells from early on when he was applying for a research grant and he went to a Noble laureate who worked in a lab nearby and said, I'm worried about putting too much information out there. I'm worried that somebody's going to steal it. And the doctor read his paper and said, it's theft-proof. You'll be able to work at your own pace, I figure, for 10 years before anybody is going to believe.

Dr. NATHAN: That's right, yeah. He said, it was better in the old days when nobody believed me. Now, I've got competitors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NATHAN: Oh, but he was an extraordinarily intelligent man. And although he's remembered most for the work on cancer, you know, actually, the angiogenesis work may have its greatest practical realization in treating diseases of the eye.

BLOCK: Angiogenesis is the word he came up. It means the birth of blood vessels.

Dr. NATHAN: The — that's right.

BLOCK: I was interested in this, that he used to talk about how he would see cancer differently from purer researchers because he wasn't just a guy in a lab with specimens under a microscope, he was seeing it in a clinical basis at that time.

Dr. NATHAN: Oh, that's right. He got much of his stimulation from patients, and I think a lot of us do. But the unique part was that he was very curious about patients. He never lost his curiosity.

BLOCK: Dr. Nathan, was there something that Dr. Folkman may have told you over the years that still informs you, still — you keep in mind as you think about your medical work and maybe your life in general?

Dr. NATHAN: Yes. I had a wonderful conversation with him about a particularly tough problem that we were working on, a disease that I've been focused on for a long time. And I was talking about it with him and feeling kind of discouraged because we really weren't getting very far. And he said, well, don't just keep thinking. Don't ever give up. And I loved that.

BLOCK: That's Dr. David Nathan, physician and chief emeritus at Children's Hospital in Boston. He's also president emeritus of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He was remembering his friend and colleague, Dr. Judah Folkman, who died suddenly yesterday. He was 74.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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