Emil J. Freireich, an influential cancer researcher who developed new approaches to chemotherapy and leukemia treatments, died February 1 at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he worked for 50 years. He was 93.
“Dr. Freireich was a giant of modern medicine whose impact on the field of cancer is beyond compare,” says Peter Pisters, the president of MD Anderson, in a statement from the institution. “For more than 60 years, he pushed boundaries and devoted himself to saving young lives and relieving suffering. Dr. Freireich’s compassion and empathy, with a focus on the holistic needs of individual patients, was fused with scientific creativity and perseverance.”
Known as Jay to his friends and colleagues, Freireich was born to Hungarian immigrants in 1927 and grew up poor in inner-city Chicago, according to MD Anderson’s statement. He earned his medical degree in 1949 from the University of Illinois College of Medicine at age 22. After an internship and residencies at two Chicago hospitals and a fellowship in hematology at Massachusetts Memorial Hospital in Boston, Freireich joined the National Cancer Institute in 1955. On his first day, he was assigned to the children’s leukemia ward.
“Leukemia at that time was a horrible illness—a death sentence,” Freireich said in a 2015 interview. “Leukemia prevents blood from clotting,” he said at the time. “Children bled to death. The leukemia ward looked like a slaughterhouse. Blood covered the pillowcases, the floor, the walls . . . it was horrific.”
Despite skepticism from his colleagues, Freireich believed that leukemia patients bled to death due to a lack of blood-dwelling cell fragments called platelets. He found that mixing platelets from his own blood with leukemia patients’ blood made it clot normally, and infusions of platelets into patients stopped the bleeding. Crucially, he discovered that platelets had to be fresh to do their blood-clotting job—those in donated blood are only effective for about 48 hours.
These findings virtually eliminated leukemia patient deaths from bleeding and led to the development of the first continuous-flow blood-cell separator to separate platelets from donated blood, according to the 2015 interview.
In collaboration with other researchers, Freireich pioneered a new approach to chemotherapy involving multiple cancer drugs, which had previously been administered separately. The combination of highly toxic drugs had serious side effects on children with leukemia, but the treatment was effective. “They said I was unethical and inhumane and would kill the children. Instead, 90 percent of them went into remission immediately. It was magical,” said Freireich in 2015.
The combination of chemotherapeutic drugs has since been applied to treatment of many other cancers and is considered to have been a major breakthrough in oncology, The Washington Post reports.
“Dr. Freireich’s creative passion and fierce determination to break medical barriers led to lifesaving treatments for his young leukemia patients,” says Jordan Gutterman, a professor of leukemia at MD Anderson, in the statement. “Most breakthrough ideas are considered crazy when initially presented to the scientific community. These ‘crazy’ ideas are the ones that often evolve into revolutionary medical and scientific advances.”
Freireich joined MD Anderson in 1965. He led the leukemia research program for decades and remained at the institution until his retirement in 2015. During his tenure, he trained hundreds of physicians and scientists and helped establish protocols for randomized clinical trials. Freireich contributed to more than 700 scientific papers and books in his career, and he received numerous honors and awards for his cancer research, blood separation technology, and teaching.
“He was a towering figure in oncology, inspiring generations of oncologists and cancer researchers,” Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist and hematologist at Columbia University and author, tells the Post.
Freireich is survived by his wife, Haroldine Lee Cunningham, four children and their partners, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.