The General Motors Cancer Research Foundation announced the three winners of its $100,000 awards this week:

  • Donald Pinkel, who played a major role in developing the first cure for childhood leukemia and contributed significantly to curative chemotherapy for other childhood cancer, won the Charles F. Kettering Prize for excellence in the treatment of cancer. Pinkel was medical director of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital when he led the development of the first effective treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia. The treatment now cures more than 50 percent of ALL patients. Pinkel is now chief of pediatric leukemia at M.D. Anderson Hospital & Tumor Institute.
  • Phillip Sharp, who of higher organisms discovered that genes contain extra parts, called nonsense segments, which do not pass along hereditary information, a finding with important implications for understanding the genetics of cancer, won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for achievements in basic cancer science. Sharp is director of the center for cancer research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His work has contributed to understanding how cancer genes are switched on and off and how the genes of higher organisms continuously edit the genetic information they are about to use.
  • Harald zu Hausen, who discovered the virus that is a major factor in the development of cervical cancer, won the Charles S. Mott Prize for research in cancer causation and prevention. His work in linking human papilloma viruses to cervical cancer and more recently, some cancers of the lungs, larynx, mouth and anus, has been cited as one of the most important advances in understanding what causes cancer and which may ultimately lead to a vaccine against human HPB.

Each winner will receive a specially minted gold medal, a $100,000 prize, and an additional $30,000 to cover expenses for a scientific workshop or conference.

Pinkel was responsible for developing the concept of total therapy for ALL. His treatment plan included four distinct phases, with different combinations of anticancer drugs used for initial and long term therapy. He showed the importance of specific therapy to the central nervous system in combatting the disease, using radiation therapy alone and in combination with drugs injected directly into the spinal fluid. Margaret Sullivan, professor of pediatrics at M.D. Anderson, has since demonstrated that spinal fluid chemotherapy by itself is as effective as radiation had been.

One of Pinkel’s major and most controversial concepts centered on halting the chemotherapy that kept patients in remission. He felt that if they were still in remission after two or three years of chemotherapy, further maintenance therapy was not necessary. He waited until his first seven pediatric leukemia patients had been treated, taken off therapy and followed for five more years before publishing the results. Five of that group continue in good health, one drowned on a fishing trip and the other lived 14 years before dying of another disease.