Susan Band Horwitz ’58 Receives 2014 John Scott Award

Posted November 21st, 2014 at 3:28 pm.

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Susan Band Horwitz ’58, an internationally renowned molecular pharmacologist whose research on the drug Taxol led to its becoming one of the world’s most successful drugs in the fight against cancer, is one of three scientists to receive the 2014 John Scott Award, one of the top prizes in the world of science and medicine.

Presented by Philadelphia’s Board of Directors of City Trusts, the John Scott Award was established by it’s namesake, a Scottish chemist and pharmacist, in the early 1800s as a legacy to the scientific achievements of Benjamin Franklin and has been awarded in Philadelphia each year since 1822 to “ingenious men and women who make useful inventions” to benefit society as a whole.

Joining Horwitz in receiving the award this year are Drs. Leonard Hayflick and Paul Moorhead, co-winners for their work in proving that normal human cells have a limited capacity for dividing before they die out – a revolutionary idea that helped launch the modern era of research on the causes of human aging.

“The groundbreaking research of these three brilliant scientists has made the world a better place,” said Ronald Donatucci, president of the Board of City Trusts, which administers the award for the City of Philadelphia. “That was John Scott’s purpose in establishing the award upon his death in 1815.  Each of these awardees achieved success by testing conventional wisdom and having the courage to persist long before the world accepted their findings.”

The career profiles of the awardees are a testament to their dedication to the principles of science; and specifically, their determination to continue their research even when others either disagreed with their findings or largely ignored them.

In Horwitz’ case, it was the latter. Having earned her undergraduate degree at Bryn Mawr College and a Ph.D in biochemistry from Brandeis University, Horwitz was working as a part-time researcher (while raising her twin sons) at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

While there, she was asked by the National Cancer Institute in 1977 to study Taxol, a drug isolated from the bark of the Pacific yew tree. Horwitz had a continuing interest in natural products as a source of new drugs for the treatment of cancer, and had made major contributions to our understanding of the mechanisms of action of camptothecin, the epipodophyllotoxins and bleomycin. In the course of her research with Taxol, Dr. Horwitz and her colleagues were able to explain how the drug worked, articulating a “mechanism of action that had never been seen before.”  Her work eventually led to the conclusion that Taxol was a prototype for a whole new class of cancer drugs.

At the start, however, her findings were largely ignored by the pharmaceutical industry, which was not interested in Taxol when she began her studies.  It took nearly a decade, but eventually Taxol became one of the world’s most successful cancer drugs. Today, Horwitz’ research is focused on understanding how Taxol and other natural substances can overcome the drug-resistant properties of human tumors, to increase the effectiveness of cancer treatment.

Horwitz is the Falkenstein Professor of Cancer Research and co-chair of the Department of Molecular Pharmacology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine School. She has been recognized with many awards and has delivered lectures about her work throughout the world.  She is a past president of the American Association for Cancer Research, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2012, she became a member of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, where she received the John Scott Award.

As for the initial lack of interest in her work, Dr. Horwitz explained that the work was its own reward. “I’m a scientist,” she said, “and we knew from our experiments that we had something special.  It took a few years for interest in our work to perk up, because it needed to be clear that Taxol would be a useful drug in humans.

“It was a very exciting time for all of us, and it is gratifying to know that because of our work, and our role in encouraging the development of Taxol by the National Cancer Institute, millions of people have taken this drug and are alive today.”

Past recipients of the John Scott Award include 15 winners of the Nobel Prize, among them Marie Curie, Guglielmo Marconi, R. Buckminster Fuller, Baruch Blumberg, Kary Mullis, K. Barry Sharpless, and most recently physicist Saul Perlmutter, who won the Scott Award in 2005 and went on to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2011.

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