Dr. Emil Freireich, a renowned cancer doctor and tireless researcher who helped develop therapies for childhood leukemia that changed the lives of patients believed to have little hope of survival, died on February 1 at MD Anderson University of Texas Cancer Center at Houston. where he had worked since 1965. He was 93 years old.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Debra Ann Freireich-Bier. The hospital said he tested positive for Covid-19 but it has not yet been determined whether it was the cause of death.
Dr. Freireich spent his career at the National Cancer Institute and MD Anderson. He spent six decades exploring new cancer treatments and training hundreds of doctors to follow him on his journey.
“He oversaw research in all cancers, directed and dictated the development of protocols, implemented them and published results that were adopted worldwide,” said Dr. Hagop Kantarjian, MD Anderson Leukemia Chairperson.
When Dr. Freireich (pronounced FRY-Rike) 1955 his work at the NCI in Bethesda, Md., Admission, acute childhood leukemia was viewed as a death sentence. As he walked into the ward where the children were being treated, he remembered their bleeding because their blood had practically no platelets, the disc-shaped cells that clot blood.
It was like being in a slaughterhouse, his boss, Dr. C. Gordon Zubrod.
“They bleed from their ears, from their skin,” said Dr. Freireich wrote to Malcolm Gladwell when he was featured in Mr. Gladwell’s book “David and Goliath: Outsiders, Outsiders, and the Art of Fighting Giants” (2013). “There was blood on everything. The nurses would come to work in their white uniforms in the morning and go home covered in blood. “
Dr. Freireich, a hematologist and oncologist, tested his hypothesis that the lack of platelets was causing the bleeding by mixing some of his own blood with something from the children.
“Would it be normal?” He said in an interview for an NCI oral history project in 1997. “Sure enough.”
Further tests conducted to convince his skeptics at the Cancer Institute have proven him right.
But he had another problem: the blood the children had been given lacked the platelets necessary for blood to clot because it was at least 48 hours old. The platelets had deteriorated and were unusable.
Dr. Freireich successfully advocated the use of freshly donated blood that could be transfused as quickly as possible instead of languishing in the institute’s blood bank. A minister who was the father of one of the patients brought 20 of his parishioners to donate blood.
Dr. Looking for a more effective way to deliver platelets to his patients, Freireich began developing a machine to extract platelets from white and red blood cells. He soon found an unexpected ally in George Judson, an IBM engineer whose son had leukemia and who had turned up at the institute to offer his expertise.
Soon they were working on a continuous flow blood separator that was found to be far more efficient at delivering platelets than blood transfusions. (The separator, which used a high-speed centrifuge, was patented in 1966.)
Dr. However, Freireich’s most important and lasting achievement was using a combination of drugs to put leukemia into remission. He explored options in chemotherapy with several NCI colleagues, including Dr. Emil Frei III, who was known as Tom.
They aggressively attacked childhood leukemia by developing a cocktail of four drugs given at the same time – a technique similar to three-drug therapy used to treat tuberculosis – so that each one attacks a different aspect of the cancer’s physiology in cells.
“It was crazy,” said Dr. Free to Mr. Gladwell. “But smart and right. I thought about it and knew it would work. It was like the platelets. It should work! “
But not without danger and worry. Some of the children almost died from the drugs. Critics named Dr. Freireich was inhuman because he had experimented with his young patients.
“Instead, 90 percent went into remission immediately,” he told USA Today in 2015. “It was magical.” But temporarily. One round of the cocktail wasn’t enough to clear all of the cancer. Therefore, Dr. Freireich and his team took them monthly for more than a year.
When he and Dr. Frei received the renowned Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award in 1972, the proportion of children who lived at least five years after being diagnosed with leukemia was 30 percent. According to the American Cancer Society, survival rates today are on regimens similar to those of Dr. Freireich and Dr. Free at 90 percent. Dr. Frei died in 2013.
Emil J Freireich was born on March 16, 1927 in Chicago. His mother Mary (Klein) Freireich worked long hours in a sweat shop after her husband David died when Emil was 2 years old. He was placed in the care of an Irish maid who became his surrogate mother. Shortly after he was nine years old, his mother remarried and quit her job. She and her new husband released the maid.
“I never forgave my mother for this,” said Dr. Free to Mr. Gladwell.
He was an excellent physicist in high school, where he won first prize in a science competition. His physics teacher encouraged him to go to college where his goal was to be a family doctor like the one who treated his family.
“He worked for nothing and always wore a suit and tie and always looked so dignified,” said Dr. Freireich the online publication of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 2015.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in medicine from the University of Illinois, Chicago, in 1947, he received his medical degree from the University of Chicago’s College of Medicine, also in Chicago, in 1949.
His internship at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago ended after confronting a nurse for taking a patient with heart failure to what is known as the “death room” instead of keeping him on the ward where Dr. Freireich had treated him. He has been called a “troublemaker,” he said.
He then served his residence at the nearby Presbyterian Hospital (now part of Rush University Medical Center) and then moved to Boston on a fellowship to study anemia in a hospital. There he met Haroldine Lee Cunningham, a nurse. They married in 1953.
He was drafted into the Army that same year but was able to join the United States Public Health Service and work for the NCI, a branch of the National Institutes of Health.
When they first met, Dr. Zubrod, his boss: “Freireich, what are you doing?”
“I’m a hematologist,” recalled Dr. Freireich and then watched Dr. Zubrod scratched his head and said, “Freireich, you should cure acute leukemia in children.”
“And I said, ‘Yes sir.'”
After a decade of developing therapies for childhood leukemia at the NCI, Dr. Freireich and Dr. Freely recruited to MD Anderson in 1965. Together, they formed the Developmental Therapeutics Division and tasked scientists with developing drug combinations for various cancers, including adult leukemia, lymphoma, and Hodgkin’s disease, using the same methods used to treat childhood leukemia.
Due to the larger than life personality and magnetism of Dr. Freireich attracted people from all over the world to study with him, ”said Dr. Kantarjian.
He retired in 2015 but continued to teach and advise at MD Anderson.
In addition to his wife and wife Freireich-Bier, Dr. Freireich another daughter, Lindsay Freireich; two sons, David and Tom; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Dr. Freireich compared his early battle to cure childhood leukemia to a battle in which he and the NCI team had an alliance that was “forged under attack”.
To cure cancer, he added, “Motivate people and give them the opportunity. People are naturally motivated. Nobody likes to be lazy and do nothing. Everyone wants to be important. “