Paul Talalay, MD, an internationally renowned molecular pharmacologist whose discoveries launched the research field of cancer prevention, died on March 10.
He was age 95 years old and died of congestive heart failure.
Talalay led the team at the Johns Hopkins Laboratory for Molecular Pharmacology that isolated sulforaphane, a potent anticancer compound found in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables.
The discovery — published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1992 — garnered global attention as a breakthrough in understanding the potential link between cruciferous vegetable consumption and reduced cancer risk.
Talalay’s decision in 1993 to switch his laboratory’s research focus from cancer treatment to cancer prevention was met with some surprise by his colleagues — there was little funding for cancer prevention research at the time.
“Since then, the impact of Talalay’s pioneering research has been profound,” according to a statement from Johns Hopkins Medicine.
“The number of published studies by other researchers in the field each year has jumped from just a handful to hundreds,” it continues. “Talalay’s own research has resulted in more findings about sulforaphane’s ability to heighten the body’s own defenses against cancer.”
In 1997, Talalay founded Brassica Protection Products along with fellow Johns Hopkins researcher Jed Fahey, MS, ScD, a nutritional biochemist, and his son, Antony Talalay, a New York advertising executive.
Originally, the company marketed broccoli sprouts, which contain a much higher concentration of sulforaphane than mature broccoli. In 2001, the company launched products featuring what was branded as TrueBroc, a nutritional ingredient containing high concentrations of glucoraphanin, the precursor of sulforaphane, extracted from broccoli seeds.
“He was quite gratified, though rarely spoke about it, to see how ‘his’ field had exploded, and to start seeing his theorems, postulates, and hypotheses find their way into textbooks,” Fahey, who is director of the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Chemoprotection Center at Johns Hopkins.
“I was very privileged to bear witness to Paul’s happiness over these developments that he was so intimately involved in bringing to the crest of the wave that many, many researchers are now surfing on,” Fahey added in a statement.
Discovery of Enzymes That Protect Cells
Talalay received an undergraduate degree in molecular biophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1944 and entered medical school at the University of Chicago. He transferred to the Yale School of Medicine in 1946 where he received his medical degree in 1948.
While at the University of Chicago, Talalay conducted research in the laboratory of Charles Huggins, MD, (1901-1997) who studied how hormone treatment can alter the course of metastatic prostate cancer, work that earned Huggins the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1966.
Talalay’s research extended this work by charting the course of enzymes that break down testosterone in the cell. This led to his discovery that certain enzymes can protect cells against many types of damage, including cancer.
Talalay left Chicago for Baltimore in 1963 when he was recruited to become head of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at Johns Hopkins. He founded the PhD program in pharmacology and fostered creation of the school of medicine’s MD/PhD program. The MD-PhD student library at Johns Hopkins University is named in Talalay’s honor.
Talalay was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was awarded one of the first lifetime professorships of the American Cancer Society.
In 2009, he received the Linus Pauling Institute Prize for Health Research, one of the leading honors for scientists studying micronutrients, diet, and other natural approaches to disease prevention or therapy.
The youngest of four brothers, Talalay was born in Germany in 1923 to Russian parents. He emigrated to England in 1933 following Hitler’s rise to power and then to the United States in 1940. He is survived by his wife Pamela of 66 years, four children, and four grandchildren. A memorial service at Johns Hopkins is being planned.
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