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In memoriam: Isaiah J. Fidler, DVM, PhD

Photo of Isaiah Josh Fidler, DVM, PhD

Isaiah J. Fidler, DVM, PhD, former GSBS faculty member and an icon at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center who spent 36 years here building the foundation of metastasis research and making seminal contributions to this field that plays such a critical role in oncology, passed away May 8. He was 83.

Fidler didn’t take a traditional path to academic medicine. Much like the man himself, he charted his own course.

As a native of Jerusalem, Fidler earned his degree in veterinary medicine from Oklahoma State University in 1963. In a 1999 profile in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Fidler explained that Israel emphasized careers such as farming in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He wanted to be a human surgeon and felt the best compromise was to become a veterinarian. He worked as a surgical oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, and then in 1970 he earned a doctoral degree in human pathology at the university’s School of Medicine so he could study and combat the lethal spread of cancer to other organs. In 1975, Fidler joined the National Cancer Institute (NCI), where he led the metastasis program at the Frederick Cancer Research Facility. His eight years there produced some of his early innovative work in unraveling the riddles of how cancer spreads.

In 1983, Fidler joined MD Anderson as professor and founding chair of Cancer Biology, a department he led until 2008. For many more years, he continued his academic pursuits and leadership responsibilities that included director of our Cancer Metastasis Research Center and Metastasis Research Laboratory. That same year, he became a GSBS faculty member. In 2019, Fidler fully retired and was appointed the prestigious title of professor emeritus.

Fidler was a pioneer in understanding how cancer spreads to other organs and then grows. His work exposed the origins of metastases, the processes by which these cells spread and thrive in other organs, the molecular diversity that makes them so hard to treat, and the crucial supporting role of their surrounding microenvironment. These discoveries proved the need for specific targets for metastatic cancer cells and showed why some treatments are less successful against metastatic disease.

His later work focused on brain cancer. Fidler’s team showed that tumors that spread to the brain tricked brain cells, called astrocytes, into protecting the cancer, making the tumors resistant to chemo. Another study explored combining the oral chemotherapy drug temozolomide (TMZ) with macitentan, a drug originally approved for treating pulmonary hypertension, as a potential treatment for glioblastoma.

His incredible career of more than 50 years includes more than 820 publications in peer-reviewed journals and overseeing numerous former trainees and mentees who now hold faculty leadership positions of their own in research institutions around the world. There are many written works that summarize Fidler’s outstanding contributions and honors. It is impossible to reference them all, so I will just point out a few: our 2015 Annual Report feature and this 2007 Employee Notes story highlighting an international blue-ribbon group of cancer researchers who gathered to give lectures for the symposium “Forty Years of Metastasis Research: A Symposium in Honor of Dr. Isaiah J. Fidler.” Additionally, Fidler participated in MD Anderson’s Oral History Project where he shared his personal thoughts on his career.

Fidler was internationally respected and extended his service to many professional activities, including founding editor of Cancer and Metastasis Reviews and serving as president of American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and the International Society of Differentiation.

Among the many recognitions of Fidler’s scientific contributions is his 2007 selection as a prestigious fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His list of awards from MD Anderson include the 1983 Ernst W. Bertner Memorial Award, the 2004 Charles A. LeMaistre, M.D., Outstanding Achievement Award, and the President’s Award in 2007, which he received along with his wife and GSBS emeritus faculty member, Margaret Kripke, Ph.D.

Organizations worldwide honored him as well. Among them: two NCI Outstanding Investigator Awards (1987 and 1995), AACR’s G.H.A. Clowes Memorial Award for Accomplishment in Basic Cancer Research (1988), the World Health Organization’s Gold Medalist for Biological Sciences (1997), the American Cancer Society’s Distinguished Service Award (2004), ACS’s Medal of Honor in Basic Research (2013), the Gold-Headed Cane Award from the American Society for Investigative Pathology (2016) and AACR’s Margaret Foti Award for Leadership and Extraordinary Achievements in Cancer Research (2018).

Former MD Anderson President John Mendelsohn, M.D., said of Fidler when presenting him with the President’s Award: “I consider Dr. Fidler as the chief gadfly at MD Anderson. He always challenges and always has insightful comments. He makes us think because he is a truly original thinker.” For a scientist, original thinking is likely among the highest compliments and fitting for Fidler no doubt.

Fidler leaves behind his wife, Margaret Kripke, Ph.D., another MD Anderson icon who served as founding chair of Immunology and last served as executive vice president and chief academic officer before her retirement in 2007.

Plans from MD Anderson to honor and remember Fidler will be announced in the coming months.

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