Standing Up to Cancer in New York City and Beyond

| 28 Jul 2015 | 10:57

Dr. Samuel Waxman is making tremendous strides in cancer research and is grateful that our city allows him to pursue his dream of curing the disease. “New York City is blessed by having a huge number of people working in cancer research. We now have five designated cancer centers in the city, much more than any other place in the country,” he explained.

The New York native, who has worked at Mount Sinai Medical Center for over 30 years, founded the Samuel Waxman Cancer Foundation in 1976. Since then, the organization has been funding research while collaborating with scientists around the world.

Waxman also recognizes the generosity of the city when it comes to fundraising for a cause. “It is one of the most philanthropic cities in the world,” he said. “People in this city have a history of giving that is unmatched. And it’s not just from the super-rich, it’s from people who want to make a difference.”

When did you know you wanted to become a doctor?I was going to be a veterinarian. I was at Cornell as an undergrad. After my second year, I had a miserable summer on a farm in Duchess County. At the same time, my mother had died from cancer. So I went over to the person in charge of the program, told them I was no longer interested in becoming a veterinarian and withdrew my application and became a pre-med.

I read that your going into cancer research was an accidental occurrence. I wouldn’t call it accidental; I would consider it logical. When I finished medical school, I went on to a residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in hematology. I took a four-year research fellowship and was studying two vitamins. One was folic acid and the other was Vitamin B12. And I was always amazed that those vitamin deficiencies can cause a blood condition called pernicious anemia that was a major cause of death until we discovered that the two vitamins were needed. That happened many years before I went into that research. I was amazed that a deficiency of B12 and folic acid could make bone marrow look like leukemia. And so I studied to try to understand how that could happen. The result was it stopped the normal cells from maturing. They were unable to make the products necessary, so the blood was totally deficient. I was studying that for a number of years. In the early 70s, a colleague of mine had an accidental error in the lab where they were growing leukemia cells and left a chemical in by mistake and the leukemia cells started maturing and making hemoglobins. And that proved to me that leukemia cells could be made to normalize just like the B12 and folic deficiency. That’s when I started studying differentiation of leukemia. Then, in collaboration with some colleagues in Shanghai, we discovered that by using a highly potent form of Vitamin A in a specific form of leukemia, we could make that leukemia cell eradicated without any toxicity and place people in complete remission.

You are firm believer in the value of collaboration. Why is that so important?My experience in the work we did in Shanghai was a very good example. Between their labs, my lab and another lab in London, we moved quickly into clinical trials and that’s why we were able to show relatively fast how to cure acute promyelocytic leukemia. Around that time, the foundation was going and I said to myself, ‘I’m not smart enough to understand how to discover the gene and know what was wrong with it.’ I needed help. The China experience was a really good one; we still collaborate to this day.

Tell us about the benefit your foundation throws every year, A Hamptons Happening. Ten years ago, on Long Island, we started an event as a cocktail party. It’s grown into a significant event where, just a week ago, we had several hundred people and raised more than half-a-million dollars. It shows that a lot of people here want to step up and hit cancer hard because cancer affects everybody. Everyone has seen someone they care about get sick or die from this disease.

Explain your connection with Jill Zarin.I met her casually in San Francisco. She was there with her husband; I was there with my wife. After that meeting, all four of us had a positive feeling about each other. She’s a very energetic and bright woman. And when she gets something in her head, very few people will follow through as thoroughly as she. At that time, I found out that her husband Bobby had thyroid cancer, so we spoke about it. I got involved in advising them with some other experts in the field on some of the steps they might take to stay ahead of this disease. And with that, Jill decided she wanted to help raise money for the foundation and at the same time, raise money the foundation would use towards thyroid cancer research. And she is a dynamo and worked very hard on this last event. My wife actually co-chairs that event as well. Bobby is a wonderful man; he’s in good shape and we want to keep him that way.

What do you see for the future of the organization? I would like to institutionalize so that the model of collaboration for a cure by the best scientists in the world can generate a wider revenue base. We’re looking into developing some of the intellectual properties that the scientists, including myself, have discovered. I see myself continuing to do this and building on it and sticking with the mission of discovering why genes don’t function in cancer. The foundation is going to use its brain trust to understand what the footprints of aging cancer are and find ways to prevent that from happening. That’s my dream.

For more information on Dr. Waxman and his foundation, visit