HOUSTON ― The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center will celebrate the life of trailblazing oncologist Emil J Freireich, M.D., in a virtual tribute on Sept. 23. The hour-long event will be available for viewing starting at 4 p.m. CT at mdanderson.org/FreireichTribute.
Freireich died Feb. 1 at the age of 93. He is recognized as a founding father of modern clinical cancer research and for breaking medical barriers and pioneered the development of groundbreaking combination therapies for childhood leukemia.
“Dr. Freireich advanced creative ideas with a fearlessness that made him the perfect advocate for children with leukemia,” said Peter WT Pisters, M.D., president of MD Anderson, during the tribute’s opening statement. “For more than 60 years, Dr. Freireich pushed the boundaries of modern medicine to develop therapies that would save many young lives. Dr. Freireich’s contributions are a highlight in the history of cancer research at MD Anderson.”
The tribute includes a documentary video of Freireich’s life; eulogies from his daughter, Debbie Freireich, and son, Tom Freireich, and his physician assistant Katherine Kurie; and a special message from Welela Tereffe, M.D., chief medical executive at MD Anderson. In addition, Christopher Flowers, M.D., division head ad interim of Cancer Medicine and chair of Lymphoma-Myeloma, hosted a panel of experts featuring several of Freireich’s former trainees, colleagues and mentees, including:
- Hagop Kantarjian, M.D., professor and chair of Leukemia at MD Anderson
- Varsha Gandhi, Ph.D., department chair ad interim of Experimental Therapeutics at MD Anderson
- Adan Rios, M.D., professor of Oncology at The University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHealth) McGovern Medical School
- Vivek Subbiah, M.D., associate professor of Investigational Cancer Therapeutics at MD Anderson
- Elihu Estey, M.D., physician at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance
At the start of Freireich’s career, the average length of survival for childhood leukemia was only eight weeks after diagnosis. However, thanks to Freireich’s revolutionary work and research in the field, today’s five-year survival rate for children with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), the most common type of childhood leukemia, is 90%.
Freireich’s work in childhood leukemia laid the foundation for therapeutic breakthroughs in other cancer types, as well. In 1965, he co-founded the Department of Development Therapeutics at MD Anderson and recruited talented scientists from around the world to develop combination therapies for various cancers — including adult leukemia, lymphoma, breast cancer and melanoma sarcoma — based on his methodologies and protocols.
Known for his genius, optimism and passion, Freireich was committed to training and inspiring the next generations of physician-scientists.
“For many of us, he was much more than just a cancer researcher,” said Kantarjian, who was mentored by Freireich since 1978. “He was our idol and hero. He was an inspirational daily role model. He was a mentor and often acted as a surrogate parent to many of us.”
Over the course of his career, Freireich co-authored more than 600 scientific papers and more than 100 books. He received numerous accolades from national organizations, including the American Association for Cancer Research’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research and the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s 2021 Distinguished Achievement Award, posthumously.
Freireich retired from MD Anderson in 2015 after 50 years, but continued to regularly visit faculty members, students and patients.
“His legacy will live on forever,” Pisters said. “I was so fortunate to witness firsthand the wisdom, the passion, and the exacting standards that Dr. Freireich modeled for all of us to emulate in our ongoing efforts to end cancer.”
The Freireich family requests that gifts in his memory be made at: mdanderson.org/FreireichFund. Donations will help support ongoing research efforts, treatments and education in the Department of Leukemia at MD Anderson.