Charlotte Friend: one of the greatest cancer researchers in history

Today, 4th February, marks World Cancer Day, a global initiative to raise awareness about cancer and press governments and citizens alike to take action. To mark this occasion, DiscovHER celebrates microbiologist Dr. Charlotte Friend, whose hugely important contributions to cancer research continue to inspire scientists to this day.

Dr. Charlotte Friend was born in 1921 in New York City, a daughter of Russian immigrants. Following her father’s death when she was three, Charlotte and her family did not live an affluent life. Her mother put aside her career dreams to put food on the table for Charlotte and her two siblings, and was even forced to go on home relief, a welfare program, after the Great Depression.

Despite these difficult conditions, she insisted that her children focus on their education, which allowed Charlotte to develop her strong academic talents. She studied at Hunter College, followed by a two-year stint in the Navy and a doctorate at Yale University. She worked in New York all her life.

During her lifetime, Dr. Charlotte Friend made not one, but two, seminal discoveries that paved the path of cancer research for decades to come. The first was during her time at the Sloan Kettering Institute in 1956. After several years of experiments, she was able to isolate a virus that infected mice with leukemia, and could be transmitted from mouse to mouse. Presenting her research to the American Association for Cancer Research, her ideas were met with open hostility: for a long time, the scientific community had been extremely skeptical to the idea that viruses could cause cancer. Dr. Friend turned out to be right, and the Friend Leukemia Virus spurred a huge burst of research. Estimates have been made that in the two decades following her discovery, one third of all cancer research was based on her work! Establishing the link between viruses and cancer in animals also proved vital in showing how some human cancers are viral in origin.

Most cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, are destructive. They function by destroying cancer cells, but also kill many healthy cells in the process. Dr. Friend’s second major discovery showed that under specific conditions, leukemia cells could be made to differentiate and become noncancerous erythroid cells. This opened a major avenue of research into non-destructive cancer treatments, which would spare patients the burdens of more traditional therapies. Research in this field continues to this day.

Dr. Friend received many honors for her outstanding work: as well as being elected to the highly prestigious National Academy of Sciences in 1976, she also served as the president of the American Association of Cancer Research, and was the first woman president of the New York Academy of Sciences. She spent her life working in her lab, serving on committees, writing grants and fighting to ensure greater opportunities for women in science.

Further reading: World Cancer Day

Does Dr. Charlotte Friend’s story inspire you? Let us know what you think @4womeninscience.

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