Former Dana-Farber director remembered for contribution to curing childhood cancer, optimism

Dr. Emil “Tom” Frei III with a young patient. (Courtesy photo)

Dr. Emil “Tom” Frei III, credited with proving that combinations of chemotherapy drugs could cure pediatric leukemia and thwart the progression of adult cancers, has died.

Frei worked with Dr. Emil Freireich of MD Anderson Cancer Center in the 1950s and 1960s to treat children with acute lymphocytic leukemia, then considered nearly always fatal, using combination chemotherapy. The pair found that multiple drugs used together could produce lasting remissions.

“This approach has led to cures in many patients with cancer,” Dr. Edward J. Benz, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute president, said in a press release. “The majority of patients with certain forms of childhood leukemia, Hodgkin disease, testicular cancer, and some other cancers can now expect to live long and high-quality lives because of his contributions.”

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Frei was the former physician-in-chief and director of Dana-Farber. The 89-year-old died April 30. His research and administrative leadership helped to establish the hospital as a world leader in cancer care.

Frei was born in St. Louis in 1924. He studied medicine at Yale University Medical School and served in the Navy Medical Corps in Korea. He is survived by five children and 10 grandchildren.

Here’s more from the Dana-Farber press release:

Known as an eternal optimist, Dr. Frei was admired by colleagues for his ability to inspire them to challenge their intellects and preconceptions. He was equally beloved by patients, many of whom returned to him for annual checkups long after their treatment had been completed. He was a favorite of young cancer patients in Dana-Farber’s Jimmy Fund Clinic when he dressed up as Big Bird or Darth Vader for parties.

His breakthrough work began in 1955 with his arrival at the National Cancer Institute, where he was recruited by the Institute’s director, Gordon Zubrod, MD, to do research in childhood leukemia. Within a year, he was named chief of the NCI’s Leukemia Section and later, chief of Medicine. Dissatisfied with the short-term ALL remissions produced by single-drug therapies, Drs. Frei, Freireich, James Holland, MD, and others began testing combinations of two or more agents to attack multiple aspects of leukemia cells’ growth. The research was driven by Dr. Frei’s ability to see promise where others saw discouragement.

When Dr. Frei and his colleagues began these combinations in patients, only a few were cured. Undeterred, he found lessons in these survivors that could improve therapies in the next round of trials. He demanded the same single-mindedness in those he worked with.

The Frei-Freireich team also tackled the problem of chemotherapy-induced bleeding and showed that infusions of blood platelets allowed chemotherapy to be given safely in larger, more effective doses.

Today, combination chemotherapy and platelet transfusions result in complete and permanent cures for three of every four children with ALL. The method is credited as a very significant advance in saving the lives of patients with cancer.

Dr. Frei moved to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston in 1965, where he served as associate scientific director of Clinical Research and chaired the Department of Experimental Therapeutics. In 1972 he joined Dana-Farber as physician-in-chief, succeeding the Institute’s founder, Sidney Farber, MD, who passed away later that year. In 1973, he became director of Dana-Farber and professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

With Dana-Farber colleagues Arthur Skarin, MD, and George Canellos, MD, he developed a therapy for adults with non-Hodgkin lymphoma – one of the first chemotherapy regimens to produce a significant cure rate for the disease. He joined fellow Dana-Farber researchers in initiating the use of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy as a primary treatment for osteogenic sarcoma, a bone cancer of young adults. In the mid-1970s, he and his associates developed and tested drug combinations that boosted survival rates for breast cancer patients. He also worked with Dana-Farber investigators to pioneer the use of bone marrow transplants for various types of cancers.

Under Dr. Frei’s stewardship, Dana-Farber became one of the world’s premier centers for cancer care and research in children and adults. Dana-Farber’s staff increased from 150 at his arrival to 900 by the end of the decade.

For a generation of workers in the Longwood Medical Area, Dr. Frei was a familiar sight, pedaling his bike to and from Dana-Farber.