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Vol. LIX, No. 10
May 18, 2007

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Cohen Inducted into NICHD Hall of Honor

  Nobel laureate and recent NICHD Hall of Honor inductee Dr. Stanley Cohen is flanked by NICHD director Dr. Duane Alexander (r) and Cohen’s most recent project officer Dr. Gilman Grave.  
  Nobel laureate and recent NICHD Hall of Honor inductee Dr. Stanley Cohen is flanked by NICHD director Dr. Duane Alexander (r) and Cohen’s most recent project officer Dr. Gilman Grave.  
Long-term NICHD grantee Dr. Stanley Cohen was inducted into the institute’s Hall of Honor recently. Cohen, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1986 for his part in the discovery of growth factors, was the 16th Hall of Honor inductee. At the most recent NICHD council, he reminisced about his long research career.

The Hall of Honor, located on the second floor of Bldg. 31, features commemorative plaques describing the contributions of scientists that NICHD has supported during its more than 40-year history. The award recognizes intramural scientists and extramural grantees who made outstanding contributions to both science and human health.

“Like the other members of the NICHD Hall of Honor, Stanley Cohen advanced human health through scientific discoveries,” said NICHD director Dr. Duane Alexander. Growth factors are naturally occurring proteins that stimulate cells to divide or to form tissues and organs. Cohen discovered epidermal growth factor and its cellular receptor, which play key roles in development and offer new targets for drug treatment. Each growth factor fits into its receptor—a special site on the cell’s surface— in much the same way a key fits a lock. Once in place, the growth factor triggers the cell to undertake a new activity, such as dividing to form still more cells, perhaps forming such tissues as skin, bone or blood vessels.

The discovery sparked a new field of science. Today, research in growth factors has led to advances in understanding cancer, AIDS, wound-healing and various developmental disorders.

Born in Brooklyn in 1922, Cohen received his bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from Brooklyn College, an institution he was able to attend only because of its free tuition. He went on to earn his master’s degree in zoology from Oberlin College and his doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Michigan.

For his doctoral research, Cohen studied nitrogen metabolism in earthworms. He couldn’t afford to buy worms from a biological supply company, so he spent his nights flooding campus lawns with a garden hose. Wearing a lighted miner’s hat, Cohen would stoop to collect the emerging worms. When fellow students asked what he was doing, he said he was gathering worms for his doctoral dissertation. When they didn’t believe him, he grew tired of trying to explain himself. Exasperated, he finally said he was pledging a fraternity and gathering worms for his initiation. From then on, the Michigan students were satisfied with his explanation.

After graduating, he worked at the University of Colorado, then went to Washington University in St. Louis, where he took a position in the lab of Dr. Viktor Hamburger. Hamburger and Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini enlisted Cohen’s help because they needed a biochemist. They sought to determine the properties of a substance that caused nerve growth in chick embryos.

“I joined their laboratory, and for the next 5 or 6 years we got along fine because we never argued—I knew no neuroembryology and they knew no biochemistry!” Cohen noted. Eventually, Cohen and Levi-Montalcini isolated nerve growth factor (NGF), a substance that came from mouse tumors. Later, he and Levi-Montalcini shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery.

While at Washington University, Cohen made an interesting observation. When he took an extract from the salivary gland of a male mouse and injected it into baby mice, their eyes opened up to 5 days earlier than normal. After his postdoctoral appointment, he took a position with Vanderbilt University.

Cohen applied for his first research grant in 1963, explained Dr. Gilman Grave, chief of NICHD’s Endocrinology, Nutrition, and Growth Branch, and Cohen’s most recent project officer. Through the years, the grant was refunded six times until Cohen retired in 1999.

“I was not interested particularly in mouse eyes,” he continued, “but I thought the substance was important because it sped up a normal developmental process and I thought that anything that can speed up a normal developmental process must have some significance.”

Over the next 30 years, Cohen discovered, isolated, purified and sequenced epidermal growth factor (EGF), a protein that stimulates the growth of epidermal cells, which form a lining in blood cells, skin and other tissues. Grave noted that Cohen sequenced the protein “the hard way, before there were automated sequencers.” Sequencing EGF led Cohen to isolate the protein’s target receptor on the cell membrane. Next, he deciphered the elaborate sequence of chemical reactions that takes place in the cell after EGF binds to the receptor.

Grave pointed out that Cohen’s work has led to drugs used to treat breast cancer and leukemia. Additionally, he noted that EGF itself is used to treat corneal abrasions and to help the healing of wounds and burns, among other medical uses.

“When I heard about that, I thought, well, that’s pretty good—going from eye opening to curing cancer,” Cohen said.

EGF also binds to cells of the nervous system. Study of the protein may yield new insights into the development of Alzheimer’s disease, as EGF binds to the type of brain cell most affected by the degenerative disorder.

In presenting Cohen with his citation, Alexander said, “We salute you as a person whose pursuit of knowledge followed a difficult path, but whose persistence and brilliant success produced discoveries of some of the basic secrets of life that are leading to better health for all people.” NIH Record Icon

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