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Nobel laureate receives lifetime achievement award

August 28, 2000

Heather Heilman

There are words you never want to hear your doctor say, words like "brain tumor" and "prostate cancer." But someday those words might not have so much power to terrify. Much of the credit will belong to Andrew V. Schally, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1977 and is still making headlines.

Schally is Chief of the Endocrine, Polypeptide and Cancer Institute at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New Orleans and the head of experimental medicine at Tulane. Schally was recently presented with the Lifetime Service to Veterans Award from the Veterans Health Administration, in recognition of his groundbreaking work in developing powerful new cancer treatments.

Since coming to the VA and Tulane in 1962, thousands of veterans and others have benefited from his work. Rudolph Guiliani, the current mayor of New York, is one of the prostate cancer patients receiving treatment based on Schally's work.

The Endocrine, Polypeptide and Cancer Institute, located in the VA medical center, is staffed with researchers from Tulane, the VA and others who come from around the world to work with Schally. He and his collaborators recently reported that a hormone-based technique might arrest the growth of the most common type of kidney cancer-renal cell carcinoma.

Researchers used a laboratory-developed analog of somatostatin, a hypothalamic substance that inhibits the release of growth hormone. The analog was injected into two types of human renal cell carcinoma tumors that had been implanted in mice. After five weeks of treatment, the volume of one type of tumor had decreased 67.2 percent and the other by 78.3 percent. The results were published in the June 1 issue of Cancer Research.

"This analog is super potent," Schally said. "The targeted chemotherapy inhibited the tumors beautifully."

That's great news, because renal cell carcinoma has been resistant to treatment and has a very low survival rate. This advance is a step toward developing what Schally calls "magic bullets" targeted toward inhibiting the growth of various particular cancers. A treatment developed at the Endocrine, Polypeptide and Cancer Institute has already become the preferred method of treating advanced prostate cancer.

Schally and his team also are working on new ways of treating pancreatic, colorectal and gastric cancer, lung cancer, brain tumors, osteosarcomas, and breast and ovarian cancers. Drugs developed from Schally's work are more effective and have fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy.

"Our approaches are modern and free of side effects," Schally said. "Many thousands of patients with prostate cancer already have benefited from the research we do at the VA medical center in New Orleans, and eventually perhaps millions of cancer patients will benefit."

Schally's career at Tulane and the VA medical center spans 38 years. He was lured to the city by the VA's offer to set up for him a laboratory devoted to research on the hypothalamus, and he became a professor at Tulane at the same time. He won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1977 for his work in isolating, sequencing and synthesizing hypothalamic peptides-in particular, one called LH-RH, now used in treating prostate cancer, as well as somatostatin.

In 1978, he began to concentrate more and more on hormone-dependent cancers. Schally received his initial training in England at the National Institute of Medical Research. In 1952, he moved to Montreal to work and study at McGill University, where he earned his doctorate and became interested in the hypothalamic control of the pituitary gland. He worked at Baylor University for five years before coming to New Orleans.

Over the years he has published more than 2,000 papers and received more than 20 honorary doctorates. His wife, Ana Maria Comaru-Schally, is a professor of medicine at Tulane and implements clinical trials based on her husband's work. He has no plans to retire, she said, despite his 40 years of research. "Nobel Prize winners never retire," she said.

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