Jan 04, 2011
January 2011: Merrill J. Egorin, MD, FACP, a world-renowned medicine and pharmacology expert, dedicated his life to improving the care and treatment of patients with cancer through his drug development research. Dr. Egorin’s research took on increasing urgency in 2005 when he was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a blood cancer that occurs in bone marrow, and for which he later underwent a stem cell transplant and chemotherapy. On August 7, 2010, Dr. Egorin lost his brave and hard-fought battle to this disease he had worked so hard to eradicate.
Born in Baltimore, he was raised by his parents in a loving home that included his maternal grandmother and great-grandmother, who imparted early on the values of hard work and family, and instilled in him an appreciation for language, music, art, sports, and literature. His paternal grandmother and grandfather were from Russia and Dr. Egorin learned to speak and read Russian at a very early age. According to his wife of 41 years, Karen Egorin, his intellectual skills were honed very early “because it was demanded,” and “he was always reading, learning, and doing more—that’s who he was.” He played a musical instrument for a time, and was an active lacrosse player in high school and college.
The Egorins were married at 21, right before Dr. Egorin entered medical school. Karen was an elementary school teacher and felt blessed to have the opportunity to support her husband throughout his medical career. Dr. Egorin completed his undergraduate and medical oncology training at Johns Hopkins University, where he developed a real love of science while working in an embryology lab during his freshman year. He became interested in oncology during his junior year when he walked into the Baltimore Cancer Research Center looking for a summer job. There he met Dr. Nicholas Bachur, who would go on to become one of Dr. Egorin’s “idols” in the profession, a man whom he deeply admired and respected. “He felt most connected to oncology. He knew very early on he didn’t want to deliver babies—that wasn’t his thing. He saw where he could put his love for research and patient care together as an oncologist,” said Karen.
Dr. Egorin became a staff physician at the University of Maryland Hospital, and later a professor of medicine and Head of the Division of Developmental Therapeutics at the university’s Greenebaum Cancer Center, from 1982 to 1998. In 1998, he joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine as a Professor of Medicine and Pharmacology and at the time of his death, he served as Co-Director of the Molecular Therapeutics and Drug Discovery Program and Director of the Clinical Pharmacology Analytical Facility at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.
Dr. Egorin had a few other notable idols in his profession including Sir William Osler—humanitarian, founding professor of Johns Hopkins Hospital, and icon of modern medicine, and Dr. Paul Erlich, one of the first pharmacologists and inventor of the “magic bullet for syphilis.” Outside his profession, he respected Brooks Robinson, third-base player for the Baltimore Orioles, as well as Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher, physician, and writer of the Daily Prayer of a Physician. These men all shared the qualities of integrity, dedication to their work, honesty in all things, and the respect of their peers.
The Egorins had two children, Noah Egorin and Melanie A. Egorin, PhD, who described him as an amazing father, a stern educator, and a man who required the best from them. Noah, the youngest, described him as “curious, engaged, passionate about anything he got involved in, a teacher, and someone who had just a general zest for enjoying what he was doing.” Although Dr. Egorin spent much of his time, including weekends, in the lab, he also relished the time he spent with family and friends. In his spare time, he enjoyed a variety of hobbies, including long-distance bicycling, sailing, gardening, and travelling. He also loved reading, was well versed in 20th-century American literature, and was somewhat of a wine connoisseur. He enjoyed model railroading and had trains all over his house. He enjoyed working on trains with his children and grandchildren, and taking them to see the real thing. “He really loved everything, except tennis and golf,” Karen said.
He also had a “slightly offbeat sense of humor,” said Noah, as evidenced by his tie-dyed lab coat—a gift from two summer students who thought he was too “stodgy”—and his enviable frog paraphernalia collection. In the early 1970s, Dr. Egorin and his colleague, Dr. David Mehlman, would get a frog from the lab each year and enter it in the annual Baltimore frog-jumping contest. They never won, but it became a joke and people started buying him frog stuff. It was a “fun and great adventure,” said Karen.
Noah believed that his father got the greatest joy in life from seeing people he cared about succeed—whether it was family and friends or people he taught, worked with, or interacted with. Seeing a student get into medical school, achieve tremendous success at the bench, or find a new approach to looking at data gave him a little “hop to his step,” said Noah. Karen Egorin believed that Dr. Egorin’s talent was people—engaging people and creating friendships. “He was really good at that—bringing people together.”
Those who knew Dr. Egorin have said that his passion for teaching and mentoring aspiring physicians will be his greatest legacy. He truly believed in “Learn one, do one, teach one, and wanted young people to learn the love of science and intellectual curiosity,” said Karen. In fact, colleagues reported that Dr. Egorin used his own disease and treatment as teaching tools for junior faculty. He even took conference calls in his hospital room while he was being treated. According to his daughter, Melanie, in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “For him to say what a cancer patient is experiencing or how they’re responding to treatment, it really meant something.”
As mentor to five junior faculty members at the University of Pittsburgh (including Shannon Puhalla, MD, 2010 Career Development Awardee), Dr. Egorin and his colleagues were studying different approaches to using poly (ADP-ribose) polymerases (PARP) inhibitors. For this breakthrough research, as well as his dedication to mentoring and teaching, Dr. Egorin was awarded the 2009 Translational Research Professorship (TRP) by the Conquer Cancer Foundation (formerly known as The ASCO Cancer Foundation). The purpose of the TRP is to support qualified individuals who are dedicated to bringing advances in basic sciences into the clinical arena, and to mentoring other translational researchers. TRP recipients must also have made significant contributions that have changed the direction of cancer research. With the support of the TRP grant, Dr. Egorin planned to increase the coordination and expansion of the University of Pittsburgh’s program on the studies of the PARP inhibitor, ABT-888, as a single agent in BRCA-mutated or dysfunctional malignancies, or in combination with cytotoxic chemotherapeutic agents against a broader range of cancers.
“PARP inhibitors are a very interesting class of compounds that can be used as adjuncts to other forms of chemotherapy, or possibly—the most exciting thing of all—using them in this concept of synthetic lethality, and going after an Achilles heel of tumor cells,” Dr. Egorin stated during a 2009 interview with ASCO Daily News. He went on to explain that the use of single-agent PARP inhibitors does not lead to myelosuppression, nausea, vomiting, hair loss, or immunosuppression. “By using them alone, you can spare the patient the side effects and toxicities associated with cytotoxic chemotherapy,” he added. Dr. Egorin led a discussion on PARP Inhibitors during a plenary session at the 2009 ASCO Annual Meeting, during which he discussed the biochemistry and function of this unique class of compounds. With the support of the TRP, Dr. Egorin had also planned to translate the UPCI Phase I studies of UBT-888 into Phase II studies in a variety of malignancies.
While, sadly, Dr. Egorin did not live to see the fruits of his TRP research, his ideas live on, and the project continues under the capable leadership of his colleagues Nancy E. Davidson, MD, Director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, and Edward Chu, MD, Chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology.
Dr. Egorin strongly believed that receiving the TRP was “recognition of his younger colleagues.” Under Dr. Davidson and Dr. Chu’s leadership, Dr. Egorin’s five mentees have continued carrying out the work proposed in the TRP. According to their first annual progress report (July 2010), laboratory studies have established a possible role for combining PARP inhibitors with chemotherapy agents and have laid the foundation for early phase (phase I) clinical trials in patients to learn how to give these combinations in dosages that are safe and effective. The TRP awarded to Dr. Egorin has enabled the launch of six such trials and contributed to the career development and training of five young scientists who are carrying out the work. Some of these concepts have already moved into phase II testing, a major milestone in the development of new therapies against cancer.
Not only was Dr. Egorin an inspirational teacher and colleague, he was also a dedicated ASCO volunteer. An active member of ASCO since 1979, he served as Subcommittee Chair of the Scientific Program Committee from 1997-1998 and as a member of the Cancer Education Committee from 2009-2010.
Dr. Egorin was dedicated to his role as a teacher and a mentor, and mentorship is one of the core tenets of the Translational Research Professorship (TRP). “Merrill was a mentor in the truest sense of the word. His greatest joy was for his mentees to succeed. He never placed his own agenda before that of a junior colleague. You didn’t realize until a project was done not only how much he did to get it off the ground, but how much he taught you in terms of being able to do it yourself. I am so lucky to have been mentored by Dr. Egorin and grateful that he has helped to shape my career path,” said Dr. Puhalla. In fact, Dr. Egorin spoke about choosing a mentor and obtaining letters of support, a topic he was amply qualified to discuss, at the Grant Writing Workshop at the 2010 ASCO Annual Meeting. Watch Dr. Egorin and 2008 TRP recipient, Dr. Bruce Johnson, discuss the importance of mentoring the next generation of researchers in this video about the Research Professorships.
In the words of his wife, “He was absolutely unique. He hoped what he did made a difference. The life and values he held dear were important and need to be taught to other people. He will be remembered for the quality of his work and its meaning for cancer patients, his gift of teaching, and for demanding and getting excellence from those with whom he interacted.”
The Conquer Cancer Foundation (formerly known as The ASCO Cancer Foundation) is currently accepting applications for a three-year Translational Research Professorship in Memory of Merrill J. Egorin, MD. Eligibility criteria, award details, and information on how to apply online can be found in the Cancer Professionals section of the Conquer Cancer Foundation website.