Charles B. Huggins Biography (1901-1997)


Charles Brenton Huggins was born on September 22, 1901, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to pharmacist Charles Edward and Bessie Marie (Spencer) Huggins. He earned his B.A. from Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, in 1920. That sameyear, he moved to the United States to attend Harvard Medical School, graduating in four years with both an M.A. and M.D. He did his internship at the University of Michigan Hospital and was appointed instructor in surgery at theUniversity's Medical School in 1926. The following year, he became instructorof surgery on the original faculty of the University of Chicago Medical School, and in that same year, he married Margaret Wellman. The couple had a son,Charles Edward, and daughter, Emily Wellman. In 1933, Huggins became an American citizen. He attained the rank of full professor of surgery in 1936. In 1946, he spent a brief period with the Johns Hopkins University as professor of urological surgery and director of the department of urology. He was director of the University of Chicago's Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research from1951 to 1969, continuing his research at the university until 1972, when hereturned to Acadia University to become chancellor. He retired from the postin 1979 and moved to Chicago.

Huggins' initial specialty was urology, but his interest in cancer was actually sparked in 1930, when he met German Nobel Prize-winning cancer researcherOtto Warburg. Upon his return to the University of Chicago in the early 1930s, Huggins and his colleagues experimented with changing normal connective tissue elements into bone, using cells from the male urinary tract and bladder.His interest soon turned to the male urogenital system, particularly the roleplayed by chemicals and hormones in the prostate gland, the male accessory reproductive gland located at the base of the urethra. In 1939, he and his colleagues developed a surgical procedure which isolated the prostate gland of dogs from the urinary tract. This procedure allowed the analysis and measurement of secretions of the gland which form much of the ejaculatory fluid. The research was at times frustrated by the formation of prostate tumors in some of the dogs. He turned his energy to studying the development and growth of prostate cancer.

Huggins discovered high levels of testosterone, a male sex hormone, in secretions from a cancerous prostate. He also discovered that reducing male hormonesecretions by either orchiectomy (castration) or estrogen (a female hormone)therapy, or both, drastically reduced testosterone levels and inhibited thegrowth of advanced metastatic (spreading) prostate cancer. He also developeda blood test to measure acid phosphatase, which is secreted by the prostate,and alkaline phosphatase, which is secreted by bone-forming cells in bone tissue, both of which showed increased levels in patients with metastasized prostate cancer. Using these measurements, he could determine the extent of the cancer and the effect of the hormone treatments.

Huggins found that although the level of androgens (male sex hormones)dropped drastically after orchiectomy, in some cases they rose again, oftento a level higher than before the surgery. Investigations led him to believethat the adrenal glands were producing androgens of their own, apparently compensating for the lowered levels induced by the hormone therapy, and encouraging the growth of the cancer. In 1944, he performed the first bilateral adrenalectomy, (removal of the two adrenal glands located above the kidneys), producing some positive results, even before cortisone was readily available forreplacement therapy. In 1953, Huggins reported that, when used in combination, adrenalectomy and cortisone replacement had a beneficial effect on 50% of patients suffering from either prostate or breast cancer, but had no effect on other types of cancer.

In the 1950s, Huggins left the clinical environment to return to the laboratory where he began focusing on breast cancer. Huggins and two students, D. M.Bergenstal and Thomas Dao, developed a treatment for cancer that entailed removal of both ovaries and both adrenal glands. Combined with cortisone replacement therapy, the treatment brought about improvement in 30% to 40% of the patients with advanced breast cancer, sometimes with quite definite and prolonged improvement.

Breast cancer research was being hampered, however, because of the long delaybetween stimulation and growth of artificially induced mammary tumors in animals. In 1956, Huggins discovered that a single dose of 7,12-dimethylbens(a)anthracene (DMBA) would quickly induce mammary tumors in certain types of female rats and that many of these tumors were, like some in humans, hormone dependent and responded to regulation of the hormonal environment.

In the mid-1960s, a major scientific controversy developed around whether birth control pills encourage cancer of the breast and other reproductive organs. Huggins, who by that time had spent more than 30 years researching the relationship between hormones and cancer, studied data collected from thousands of women taking birth control pills. He believed that "the pill" did not encourage such cancers in women.

For his research on hormones and cancer, Huggins shared the 1966 Nobel Prizewith Peyton Rous, who was honored for his work 55 years earlier on viral causes of cancer. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Huggins was awarded oneof the highest honors to be bestowed by American medicine, the Lasker Clinical Research Award, in 1963. He was also the first recipient of the Charles L.Mayer Award in cancer research from the National Academy of Sciences in 1943.Huggins also was awarded two gold medals for research from the American Medical Association, the Order of Merit from Germany, and the Order of the Sun from Peru. He was made honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in bothEdinburgh and London, and is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees.

He died at his home in Chicago in 1997.

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