To clue into what makes Paul Talalay tick, one only has to ask him to identify his favorite hobby. He might offhandedly mention his amateur cabinet making, but it’s medical science that is Talalay’s vocation and true pastime rolled into one.
Want proof? Here is a man who delights in showing off a model of his favorite molecule, finds a calming comfort in science’s “logic and tidiness” and, at age 80, displays the bountiful enthusiasm of a first-year intern. In fact, colleagues have likened Talalay to baseball’s Barry Bonds, an anomaly of sorts who, while undeniably productive throughout his career, appears to have saved his best for last.
Talalay is quite clearly having the time of his life, and on Tuesday, friends and colleagues will celebrate this true original at the 2003 Charles E. Dohme Symposium, titled “Protection Against Cancer: Genes and Chemistry,” an event organized to honor Talalay’s career and scientific contributions.
“I have found nothing more satisfying than science to which to dedicate my time,” said Talalay, the John Jacob Abel Distinguished Service Professor of Pharmacology. “My greatest anxiety is that I will learn how to play golf and retire to Florida.”
No chance of that. Today, Talalay is very much involved with the work that has absorbed him for the greater part of 50 years, that being cancer research. In particular, since the late 1970s, Talalay has been a pioneer and champion of chemoprotection, which attempts to decrease the risk of cancer through diet. Just five years ago, he jointly founded, with Jed Fahey and JHU, Brassica Protection Products, a commercial enterprise spun off of one of Talalay’s most prominent discoveries.
In 1992, Talalay and fellow researchers captured the public’s attention with a landmark study of an antioxidant compound called sulforaphane (that favorite molecule of his), naturally occurring in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage, which acts as a sort of superfuel and igniter for the human cell’s endogenous cancer-defense mechanisms. Five years later, he followed up with a study that identified a highly concentrated source of sulforaphane, three-day-old broccoli sprouts grown from the vegetable’s seeds. Today, Talalay’s Brassica Protection Products, based in Baltimore, licenses and markets cancer preventative products such as broccoli sprouts and the new broccoli tea.
More than just the “broccoli man,” Talalay has left an indelible mark on the institution he has called home for the past 40 years.
The all-day Dohme Symposium, to be held on April 22 at JHMI’s Mountcastle Auditorium, will feature some of the greatest minds in the field of cancer prevention. The five speakers are Alfred Knudson, distinguished scientist at the Fox Chase Cancer Center; Trevor Penning, professor of pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Allan Conney, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers; Masayuki Yamamoto, professor at the University of Tsukuba in Japan; C. Roland Wolf, head of the Biomedical Research Centre at the University of Dundee in Scotland; and the university’s own Bert Vogelstein, Clayton Professor of Oncology at the Kimmel Cancer Center.
“This symposium is a milestone, really,” Talalay said. “It finally acknowledges the legitimacy and importance of the field and the variety of approaches that have been taken. I’m very deeply honored that these distinguished individuals from all over the world are coming to participate.”
The son of Russian parents, Talalay was born in Germany. Prompted by Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, the family moved to England in 1933. In 1940, during World War II, the Talalays left Europe for good to come to the United States. Following a nomadic period, they settled down in New Haven, Ct., where his father, a chemical engineer, continued his lifelong involvement in the rubber industry.
Both gifted and interested in science since his schoolboy days in England, Talalay went on to earn a degree in biophysics from M.I.T., began medical school at the University of Chicago and later received his medical degree from Yale. Returning to the University of Chicago to start his professional career, Talalay rose through the ranks to eventually become full professor. It was here that Talalay studied alongside the celebrated urologist Charles Huggins, who would later go on to win the Nobel Prize for his work on prostate cancer.
Talalay traces his interest in cancer research to his days at the University of Chicago, both as a medical student and later as a faculty member.
“In my freshman year, I saw a patient with prostate cancer, and I instantly became fascinated by the disease,” he said. “When I saw the profound effects of steroid hormones on a far-advanced stage of the disease, I decided to devote myself to the cancer problem. But at the tender age of a medical student, such plans are a bit grandiose.”
In 1962, Talalay received a letter from Milton S. Eisenhower, then president of Johns Hopkins, asking him to assume the directorship of the School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.
“I was at first somewhat incredulous, because I had never been formally identified with pharmacology, nor had I been looking for a position involving administrative skills,” said Talalay, whose field was biochemistry. “I responded to the request by coming here [for an interview], but I thought it highly unlikely that I would accept. However, when [School of Medicine dean] Thomas Turner and Milton S. Eisenhower sat me down and told me in so many words to take it, the thing that struck me was that I was dealing with truly wonderful human beings, whose ideals, civility and intelligence were so up front that it became progressively more difficult to say no. This was a place where one could not say no.”
Talalay led Pharmacology for the next 12 years, augmenting the role of chemistry to bring it more in line with the department’s original design. In 1974, he stepped down from the directorship and was named the John Jacob Abel Distinguished Service Professor of Pharmacology.
Along the way, Talalay has published more than 200 papers in scientific journals, was the driving force behind the creation of the School of Medicine’s M.D.-Ph.D program, founded the Young Investigators Day program and also founded the school’s Brassica Chemoprotection Laboratory, which is dedicated to studying edible plants that induce cancer protective enzyme activity in the body. He also holds one of the first lifetime professorships of the American Cancer Society.
Philip Cole, director of the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences and a co-organizer of this week’s event honoring Talalay, said his mentor and friend is “eminently deserving” of the tribute.
Speaking to his scientific accomplishments, Cole cites how Talalay was the first to isolate enzymes of steroid metabolism, study their mechanisms and use them for analysis. His contributions to Johns Hopkins, Cole said, include being singularly responsible for starting doctoral training in pharmacology and attracting to the faculty such distinguished scientists as Donald Coffey, Catherine Fenselau and Solomon Snyder.
“I consider him to be among the most influential leaders in the academic life of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in the last 50 years,” he said. “For me, he’s been an invaluable sounding board, a tremendous adviser and a very great role model.”
Bert Vogelstein said, “The thing that comes to mind when I think of Paul Talalay is his support for the younger members of our community. On many occasions over the past two decades, I have seen him offer help to junior faculty, just because he thought they deserved it. And of course there’s Young Investigators’ Day. This has become an extremely important institutional event, providing well-deserved recognition to the students and trainees who are primarily responsible for Hopkins’ research prowess.”
Thomas Kensler, a professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that Talalay is both a gentleman and intellectual of the highest regard.
“Paul is a phenomenal, insightful scientist and fantastic human being who has done so much to foster the careers of many here at Johns Hopkins, mine included,” said Kensler, who co-organized the event with Cole. “He has brought the Department of Pharmacology to outstanding prominence, both nationally and around the world. Shortly after he arrived here, he brought in a tremendous recruiting class. One of Paul’s greatest strengths, I believe, is his innate ability to recognize talent and help nurture it along.”
Kensler, who will deliver overviews of the cancer prevention field and Talalay’s career at the symposium, said Talalay’s work with chemoprotection has had a profound ripple effect in the medical world.
“Paul’s contributions of late recognize that we can modify our genome to maximize our resistance to cancer. This has tremendously hopeful implications,” he said. “He’s doing perhaps his best science right now, truly wonderful and important science. He’s riding a real high.”