Feb 02, 2021
ASCO and the oncology community are saddened by the news that past president Emil J Freireich, MD, FASCO, passed away on February 1, 2021. Dr. Freireich was 93.
Dr. Freireich was a trailblazer in the use of combination chemotherapy, and his discoveries gave incredible new hope to children with leukemia and their families at a time when the diagnosis was essentially a death sentence. He worked as part of a team of researchers to develop multiagent combination chemotherapy regimens that would eventually lead to a cure rate of more than 90% in children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). He was the first physician to perform leukocyte transfusion and show that peripheral blood stem cells could be engrafted, a discovery that led to allogeneic bone marrow grafts. Additionally, he helped develop allogeneic platelet transfusion for managing thrombocytopenia and developed the first continuous-flow blood cell separator.
“Emil ‘Jay’ Freireich was one of the ‘founding fathers’ of clinical oncology, whose contributions to crafting curative treatment regimens for patients with ALL and recognizing the value of platelet transfusions to prevent fatal hemorrhage saved countless lives and provided proof of concept that cancer could be cured with chemotherapy,” said ASCO chief medical officer and executive vice president Richard L. Schilsky, MD, FACP, FSCT, FASCO.
In honor of his transformational accomplishments, Dr. Freireich was awarded the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award in 1972 and ASCO’s David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award and Lecture in 1976. He would later serve as the Society’s president from 1980-1981 and was named a Fellow of ASCO (FASCO) in 2007.
Dr. Freireich received his medical degree from the University of Illinois College of Medicine in 1949. Initially planning to become a family physician, Dr. Freireich’s first foray into hematology/oncology came during a hematology fellowship where he published a landmark study on anemia and hemoglobin metabolism. Soon after he was hired as an investigator at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and assigned to research leukemia.
Together with chief of the leukemia section at the NCI, Emil “Tom” Frei III, MD, FASCO, Dr. Freireich began developing clinical trials for acute lymphoblastic leukemia to test whether combination chemotherapy was more effective than giving the drugs sequentially. Ultimately, this trial showed the combination therapy provided children with better results, an outcome soon after validated in a second trial.
In 1965, Dr. Freireich joined MD Anderson, bringing along NCI colleague Dr. Frei, where together they established a chemotherapy program and launched the Department of Developmental Therapeutics. Dr. Freireich’s career at MD Anderson spanned 50 years; he retired in 2015.
In a 2015 interview with The ASCO Post, Dr. Freireich discussed his life, career, and unconventional path to medicine. “I have been the most fortunate of men,” he said. “I have a wonderful wife and a beautiful family. I have had the privilege of working with outstanding people and have been blessed every day…. Every day, including today, when I go to work, I help people, save lives, prolong lives, and relieve suffering. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Hear Dr. Freireich explain his groundbreaking research in his own words in an interview recorded in 2019 as part of the Journal of Clinical Oncology’s “Art of Oncology: Conversations With the Pioneers of Oncology” podcast.