Stanley Cohen has died. A special place for those of us hooked on the ectoderm. Some nice comments about him in the Lancet from Geoff Watts.
A May, 1962, issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry included a deceptively arcane study on the isolation of a protein that could accelerate incisor eruption and eyelid opening in newborn mice. The author, Stanley Cohen, later to become Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) in Nashville, TN, USA, had named his protein “tooth-lid factor”. Cohen’s subsequent studies would not only lead him to rename the protein epidermal growth factor (EGF), but also mark him out as one of the founders of a new area of biology and eventually win him a Nobel Prize.
[says Lawrence Marnett], “When he came here he began studying some growth factors in animal cell extracts. One was of mouse submaxillary gland…It had peptides in it, and when he injected them into newborn mice their teeth broke though earlier than normal, and their eyelids opened sooner.” Cohen’s subsequent studies revealed that his extract worked by stimulating the growth of epidermal cells. Having consequently renamed the material EGF, he devoted the rest of his career to studying it. “He went on to identify the EGF receptor and define target cells that would respond to EGF”, recalls Graham Carpenter, Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at VUSM, who joined Cohen’s lab in 1973 and worked with him on EGF as a postdoctoral fellow. The EGF receptor proved to be a useful target for drugs, and Cohen’s discoveries opened the door to research on diseases ranging from dementia to cancer. “He understood EGF’s biological importance”, says Carpenter. “But we did not have any idea that this would extend to cancer biology in a major way.”
And as for that most successful of all biology labs, the style of exploration is familiar.
[Graham Carpenter] “In contrast to today, his research group was very small, seldom more than four people—himself, two technicians, and a postdoc…He was central to whatever was going on in the lab.” [Lawrence] Marnett also recalls that determination: “He was one of those guys that was just driven by his desire to understand how things work…It was a classic example of making an observation and then drilling down to try to understand it, not knowing what you’re going to find.” And at that time there was plenty to be found. Cohen, as Marnett puts it, was basically “mining gold”.