“Ruth has been bugging me about solid tumors for twenty-two years,” says Richard Edelson. This may seem like an odd thing for a wife to nag her husband about — but not in this case. Dr. Edelson is Director of the Yale Cancer Center in New Haven, one of only thirty-nine comprehensive cancer centers in the country.
He also heads up a team that researches treatments of a deadly cancer of the lymphatic system called Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma (CTCL). Dr. Edelson recognized and named this cancer more than twenty-five years ago when more than half of those who had it did not survive it. Today, that number is fewer than 5 percent. The research conducted at Yale is providing astonishing advancements, which may lead to possible treatments of other types of cancer. “I hate to take credit,” says Edelson. “It took us nearly twenty-six years to figure out why what we did worked.” He shrugs, palms up. “It just did, that’s all.”
The basic theory is as remarkably clever as it is simple: It begins with nature. Mother Nature provides us with relief for everything from headaches to upset stomachs, and these homeopathic remedies (no longer even referred to as homeopathic) are now heartily embraced by the community of conventional medicine.
When an herb or oil isn’t enough to alleviate symptoms or cure ills, scientists adapt nature’s offerings. For example, 8-Methoxypsoralen (abbreviated to 8-MOP) is an FDA-approved drug used to treat psoriasis, a skin disease. 8-MOP is found in large amounts in the roots of Queen Anne’s Lace, a common wildflower (though it is a naturally produced chemical that helps plants protect themselves against certain types of infections, the drug patients receive is chemically synthesized by pharmaceutical companies).
Nature is at the root of medicine in more ways than one. When the juice or sap of certain plants — figs, celery root, meadow grass, bergamot and limes (each containing 8-MOP) — is applied to the skin and then exposed to light, the pigmentation and cells of skin change; a chemical reaction occurs. Think back to your sixth-grade science lesson on photosynthesis. Sunlight activates chemical processes in plants, but also in animals and people. Psoriasis sufferers treated with 8-MOP, for example, must stand in a light box to activate the medicine in their skin. The question for cancer crusaders became: How do we expose medicated cancerous cells in a patient’s bloodstream to light, thereby activating the medicine.
Dr. Edelson explains it. “Like this,” he says, drawing squares and squiggles on a notepad. “The cancer-fighting chemicals are inserted into the blood stream of patients with CTCL.” He draws little circles for white blood cells. “Then the patient lies back like he’s giving blood, only a tube is also inserted in the other arm.” He puts out both his arms. “The blood comes out one arm” — he wiggles the fingers of his right hand. “And goes back in the other” — he wiggles the fingers of his left hand. “In between, there are two sheets of clear plastic between which the blood spreads out 1 millimeter thick, exposing the blood and the medicine to the light that activates the process before the blood returns to the body.”
But it’s more than that, so Edelson persists. He leaves the room and returns with a scrapbook. Like a proud parent, he turns the pages to show pictures of an unfortunate man covered in swollen red skin. The patient is suffering from CTCL — a systemic malignancy of the T cells, the white blood cell type that is so central to the body’s immune system. The malignant cells commonly migrate to the skin, though they circulate in the blood and can spread to any organ. When advanced, it destroys vital organs and paralyzes the immune defenses against serious infections. “This is what the patient looked like before,” he says.
He turns the page to show the same man, slimmer, happier, healthier, dressed in a tuxedo and drinking champagne. “Here we’re celebrating his recovery.”
And yet no one in Edelson’s laboratory knew why the patient experienced a complete recovery. “I expected him to be better when I went to see him,” says Edelson, shaking his head, “but not cured. I was flabbergasted.” His eyes actually sparkle.
For someone whose name pops up in thousands of medical journals and racks up just as many hits for Internet searches, he is exceedingly modest. He credits his career success to his colleagues, his wife, his professors — even the Vietnam War.
“The war revolutionized medical research,” he states. “Male med school graduates were drafted, and each year they selected 150 to work in the labs at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, instead of serving their time in Vietnam. Those were the most productive years I think I have ever spent. More than half of the guys I worked with in the program turned out to be great leaders in American medicine. The research was exciting. The atmosphere was electric. Without the war, there wouldn’t have been so many highly qualified applicants to this program.”
In the two decades following the war, Edelson became head of the Immunobiology Group at Columbia University’s Comprehensive Cancer Care Center and associate director of its Clinical Research Center. In 1986 he moved to Yale as Professor and Chair of the Department of Dermatology, served as Deputy Dean for Clinical Affairs, Director of the Cancer Center’s Lymphoma Research Program, and member of the Yale/New Haven Hospital Board of Trustees and the Yale Medical Group Board of Governors.
With a growing list of titles and international medical associations, Dr. Edelson continues to publish scientific papers and acquire therapeutic patents.
Throughout these busy years, Edelson studied a lot, read a lot, played a lot of tennis, fell in love, married and raised two sons. Then, unexpectedly, his personal and professional lives crossed paths: In 1987 his wife’s father, at age seventy-seven, developed a cancer which spread rigorously throughout his body and formed a hardened, life-threatening tumor in his lung. A colleague suggested that Dr. Edelson use his miraculous procedure to attack the tumor growing in his father-in-law’s lung.
Edelson remembers responding, “We don’t even know why it works! And you want me to go home to his only daughter and tell her I’m going try it out on her father?” He steals a glance at his wife, who, snuggled back into the couch pillows at their Westport home, looks smug. “I told him he had to. I believed in his research. I believed in his professional expertise.”
The procedure, called extracorporeal photopheresis, did attack the tumor; it grew smaller and eventually disappeared. Her father lived for three years. “I knew I was right,” Ruth says, smiling. She wants him to do more research to fight tumors and believes a cure is possible.
The mystery of why the procedure worked so completely hadn’t been solved. Then, staring at blood cells for two-and-a-half decades and puzzling over their unexplained cooperation finally paid off in a eureka moment. Research Scientist Carole Berger, PhD, his colleague for more than thirty years, was staring at the results of some patients’ blood tests. “Hmm,” she said. “I’m seeing a lot of rare dendritic cells here. More than were there before. Are we making them?”
“Her attention to detail is uncanny,” says Edelson. “She can see things; she’s never been proven wrong.”
He continues, “We realized that the process of sliding the blood between sheets of plastic altered the composition of cells other than the cancerous ones. Protein in the blood stuck to the plastic, cells bounced against the protein, and the contact changed them. When the cells returned to the bloodstream, they took on a job we had not anticipated: They fought cancer.”
Dr. Edelson enjoys working in the laboratory, where Carole Berger makes sure that he doesn’t tip over equipment in his childlike enthusiasm. “He’s a lot smarter than he looks,” she quips.
But duty called. In 2003 Edelson was asked to lead the Yale Cancer Center; he agreed to a three-year term. During that time he improved, reorganized, expanded and enhanced the facilities. He secured a five-year renewal of the center’s core grant from the National Cancer Institute, which assured the center of its comprehensive status — its most prestigious level of designation. After three years, Edelson saw that there was more work to be done. He signed on for another three years.
The leadership of the Yale–New Haven Medical Center, including Dr. Edelson, now has the awesome responsibility of overseeing the construction of Yale’s new $467 million comprehensive cancer care hospital, made possible by the astounding largess of Joan and Joel Smilow, Southport residents with
a long history of grand philanthropy.
Smilow has been an active philanthropist since his retirement as CEO and chairman of Playtex. He and his wife Joan have made the world a better place with their generosity, from medical research to the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Philharmonic. Mr. Smilow’s contributions to the sports programs at Yale stem from his interest in watching sports (“I’ve never been an athlete,” he admits) — as well as from his belief that sports produces leaders. “And schools should produce leaders.” Hence, his seven-figure gift to endow the head football coach position, several contributions to the field house now named after him and participation in securing the largest ever graduating class gift to the university.
His contributions to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Research Center, New York University’s Medical Center, and to Norwalk Hospital’s Breast Cancer Department are precursors to his announcement last year to fund the new cancer hospital at Yale. But why cancer research?
“Why not cancer?” Smilow responds. “In fact, the contribution to Norwalk Hospital was my wife’s idea. She doesn’t usually get involved in the decisions of how best to place our donations, but she remarked, ‘That would be a good cause.’ ”
Indeed. As for the new hospital at Yale — named the Smilow Cancer Hospital — Edelson says he sees it as a facility where doctors, scientists and patients can work together as teams in an amazing fourteen-story opportunity for advancements in the field of immunotherapy for cancer treatment. “Our group’s role in the battle against cancer has taken on a life of its own and commandeered my career. My own team’s research has given me many highs, but has also left me with some serious unfinished business. Quite definitely, I intend to try to finish our part of the story.”
THE FAMILY MAN
Edelson leans back against the couch. The sun is setting and the house is growing quieter and dark. In the kitchen, the Edelsons’ younger son Ari, thirty-one, leans against the doorjamb and talks with his mother. All of a sudden, Dr. Edelson looks just like another family man. The Edelsons are a closely knit family, yet neither son followed in the footsteps of his father — or mother, for that matter: Ruth Edelson is a retired attorney. Ari graduated from Yale College, where he was head of the student theater group, and is now a theatrical director in New York City, London and Japan. Andrew, thirty-three, met his wife Carrie while students at Hamilton College, from which Dr. Edelson had also graduated. They reside outside of Washington, DC, where both are intelligence consultants. Edelson grins. “When he was a kid, I’d ask him what he did all day, and he’d say, ‘Nothing.’ Now he says, ‘If I tell you, I have to kill you.’ ” He laughs. “Same thing, I guess.”
Is he disappointed neither one of his sons became a doctor? “I don’t think so,” he says. “I just told them to follow their hearts.”
Nellie the Labradoodle prances in and flops on the floor. She takes up space like she thinks she is a toy poodle, though she’s the size of a Russian wolfhound. “This is a champion animal, you know,” says Ruth, pulling her foot out from under Nellie’s front paws. “Nellie and Rick competed in the Northeastern Frisbee Competition in Saratoga Springs last summer.”
Edelson is clearly embarrassed. Perhaps Nellie is, too. “Ruth signed us up for it, and I thought it was all in fun until I looked around and saw that all the other dogs were whippets. Everybody was dressed in aerodynamic gear; there were cameras from ESPN all around, and I thought to myself, ‘Oooh, these guys are serious!’”
Edelson takes on a superior air. “We almost won, you know.” Everyone smiles. It’s dark outside now. Ruth wants to wrap it up with something important, something lasting. “I think if I had one thing I wanted readers to know, my neighbors to know, it is to do your research when your health is involved. Get the best care, the newest research. Never settle for second best because it’s closer or more convenient. Get the best.”
Edelson looks like he is thinking about what he wants to leave his readers with. "I want everyone to know I threw the Frisbee, not Nellie.”