Apr 24, 2020
Last fall, the oncology community mourned the loss of Bernard Fisher, MD, FASCO, who passed away on October 16, 2019, at the age of 101. A world-renowned surgeon and physician-scientist, Dr. Fisher’s groundbreaking work effectively ended the practice of performing the radical mastectomy. His pioneering achievements inspired the Breast Cancer Research Foundation® (BCRF), the world’s largest private funder of breast cancer research, to endow a new annual Clinical Science Symposium in his memory.
Dr. Fisher served as distinguished professor of surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and was an active member of ASCO, serving as ASCO president from 1992 to 1993.
Dr. Fisher formulated a hypothesis that breast cancer was a systemic disease that allowed tumor cells to circulate throughout the body, suggesting that expansive locoregional therapy, like radical mastectomy, would not improve patient survival. He began designing and conducting clinical trials to test this theory when, in 1967, he became chair of the Surgical Adjuvant Chemotherapy Breast Project, later known as the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project (NSABP).
In 1977, findings from the NSABP B-04 trial showed that total mastectomy was as effective as radical mastectomy. Eight years later, results from NSABP B-06 showed that lumpectomy plus radiation treatment was as effective as mastectomy.
Dr. Fisher chaired the NSABP for 30 years. During that time, clinical trials validated the use of tamoxifen as a breast cancer treatment, introduced neoadjuvant chemotherapy to reduce tumor size, and proved the efficacy of tamoxifen for the prevention of the disease.
Given Dr. Fisher’s extraordinary contributions in breast cancer, BCRF endowed The Dr. Bernard Fisher Memorial Annual Clinical Science Symposium, which will take place as part of the ASCO Annual Meeting. The new symposium will further Dr. Fisher’s legacy in scientific sharing and discussion to advance patient care and future breakthroughs in breast cancer research. This marks the first time that BCRF has endowed an educational session at a major meeting.
“Bernie’s legacy is his impact in bringing hypothesis-driven, evidence-based science to clinical trials,” said Dorraya El-Ashry, PhD, BCRF’s chief scientific officer. “Without a doubt, he was at the vanguard of helping to move clinical research forward. We’re thrilled to honor his enormous contribution to breast cancer research by supporting the symposium—a platform that encourages investigators to share ideas and continue advancing this critical work.”
In 2003, BCRF honored Dr. Fisher with The Jill Rose Award for Scientific Excellence. “BCRF’s sole mission is to end breast cancer by supporting innovative, novel, and groundbreaking research, which was embodied by Dr. Fisher’s career and vision,” Dr. El-Ashry said. “His research changed the very nature of breast cancer care, and we will continue striving towards our shared vision: improving outcomes and saving lives."
Dr. Fisher was succeeded as NSABP chair by Norman Wolmark, MD, a colleague at the University of Pittsburgh. BCRF has funded Dr. Wolmark’s research on behalf of NSABP since 2012.
“All of oncology owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the contributions of Bernard Fisher,” Dr. Wolmark said. “He instilled in us the passion for the randomized prospective clinical trial as a vehicle to define optimum therapy in the treatment of breast cancer and other solid tumors applying the scientific method. He delivered us from the age of tyranny when a single individual could dictate the therapy of a particular disease based on their own biased retrospective experience. In the process, he revolutionized our understanding of the biology of breast cancer. His seminal work has saved countless patient lives and has had an immeasurable effect in allaying suffering.”
When Dr. Fisher passed away, “I lost a mentor, colleague, and friend, and the field of oncology lost its noblest protagonist,” Dr. Wolmark said.
Larry Norton, MD, FASCO, founding scientific director of BCRF and 2001-2002 ASCO president, said, “Of all of the people who have led the world into our modern era of breast cancer research and therapy, nobody could top Bernard Fisher. His name would be associated not only with all the advances that have led to tens of thousands of lives saved, but so many future discoveries such as the biology of metastases. He was a giant among giants, a leader among leaders, and remains an inspiration to us all.”