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A tribute to Dr. Lloyd Old

Dr. Lloyd J. Old passed away yesterday at the age of 78, a casualty of the disease to which he committed his life. A close advisor to Daniel K. Ludwig, Dr. Old was the scientific mid-wife to the 1971 birth of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (LICR). A member of its Scientific Committee throughout its formative years, Dr. Old was appointed Scientific Director and CEO of the Institute in 1988 and functioned in those capacities until he stepped down in 2005 to serve as Chairman of the Board of Directors, a position he held until 2009. He was a rare leader who cared as much about the people he worked with as the work itself. Underpinning it all was the abiding concern which he harbored for those who might benefit from his research—the victims of cancer.

Dr. Old is internationally recognized as one of the founders and standard-bearers of modern tumor immunology, bringing scientific mechanisms and rigor to the field. In 1958 he introduced the tuberculosis vaccine BCG into experimental cancer treatment. It has since become the first-line treatment for bladder carcinoma. In 1963 he first reported on the use of asparaginase as an anti-cancer agent, today used in the treatment of leukemia. Other major contributions include the co-discovery of p53, a critical molecule in the origin of cancer, pioneering work on the identification of tumor and immune cell surface markers and the discovery of tumor necrosis factor, which he showed caused tumors to blacken and die. Dr. Old’s techniques led to the cloning of the first cancer-specific antigens, which form the basis of today’s therapeutic cancer vaccines. He was also one of the first to introduce monoclonal antibodies into clinical trials, with treatments such as Erbitux and Herceptin drawing direct lines of descent from his research. Several antibodies originally developed by Dr. Old are themselves today in clinical trials. Behind these discoveries lies a vast trove of scientific knowledge that was as wide as it was deep.

In vivo veritas, Dr. Old’s motto, embodied what many would consider his greatest contribution – his unwavering dedication and commitment to translating basic research in animal models into clinical research in humans. Few scientists have been more instrumental in bringing the study of tumor immunology into the human arena, in the end the only arena that really counts. This work saw, perhaps, its most evolved embodiment in Dr. Old’s establishment and direction of the Cancer Vaccine Collaborative, a partnership between LICR and the Cancer Research Institute, that has sought over the period of a decade to optimize strategies for therapeutic cancer vaccination through immunologically monitored clinical trials.

Dr. Old’s honors and awards are testimony to his accomplishments. Over the course of his career, he received many, including the Alfred Sloan Award for Cancer Research (1962), the Louis Gross Award (1972), the Cancer Research Institute’s William B. Coley Award for Discoveries in Basic and Tumor Immunology (1975), the Research Recognition Award from the Noble Foundation (1978), the Leukemia Society of America’s Robert Roesler de Villiers Award (1981), and the Robert Koch Prize from the Robert Koch Society (1990). More recently Dr. Old was the recipient of the President’s Medal from Johns Hopkins University (2004), the Dean’s Award from Stanford University School of Medicine (2004), the Charles Rodolphe Brupbacher Prize for Cancer Research (2007) and the 2011 C. Chester Stock Award Lectureship from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1976 and to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1978. He received honorary doctorates from four universities and has published 700 research papers.

Lloyd Old was a private individual who rarely troubled others with his concerns or problems. Yet, for those within his wide orbit of acquaintanceship, he was often the first person they sought when confronted with a personal or medical complication. In him they invariably found a caring and compassionate soul whose confident tone and hopeful message eased the burden from their shoulders and shifted it to his. Though he never formally practiced medicine, Dr. Old represented the best of that profession.

In our era of visionaries, Dr. Old’s legacy is much more than the sum of his significant scientific achievements. While he indentured himself to science, his formidable capacity and voracious appetite for knowledge enabled him to be as conversant and comfortable in libraries of literature, museums of art and orchestral concert halls as he was in the laboratory.

It is fitting that Dr. Old kept a portrait of Mozart on the wall of his office. The composer served as an apt model for excellence. But the analogy is more encompassing. Lloyd Old’s life and legacy was not a single note—it was a rich and vibrant symphony. It was the scholar, the scientist; the visionary, the leader; the cultured and proper gentleman; the consoling and considerate friend. Lloyd Old hit all the right notes, in perfect time. We are, and will remain, grateful for the gift of his life.

Dr. Old’s obituary in The New York Times can be read by clicking here.

John L. Notter, Chairman
Edward A. McDermott, Jr., President
Andrew Simpson, Scientific Director


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