In 1975, CRI bestowed the first William B. Coley Award on a group of 16 men and women dubbed the “founders of tumor immunology.” Included among this elite scientific crew was a 48-year-old Russian immunologist named Garry Abelev, whose work on tumor antigens opened up a whole new vista in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
Professor Abelev died last week, on December 23, 2013, at the age of 86. CRI celebrates the life and work of Dr. Abelev, including his contributions as a long-time member of CRI’s Scientific Advisory Council.
Dr. Abelev is best remembered for his work on a blood-borne molecule called alpha-fetoprotein. In 1963, Abelev and colleagues published research showing that this protein is present in the blood of adult animals with liver tumors but not in the blood of normal animals. The protein seemed to be specifically associated with the cancer, and thus supplied evidence of a tumor-specific marker, or antigen.
Abelev went on to show that, in addition to being produced by liver tumors, alpha-fetoprotein is found abundantly in the blood of newborn animals. Blood levels of alpha-fetoprotein decline precipitously after birth, and are essentially non-existent in adulthood—except in animals with liver cancer. Why a cancer would start producing such an “embryonic” protein remained obscure. Today, we know that cancers express many such “carcinoembryonic antigens”; some of these proteins are believed to confer on cancer cells the ability to divide in a manner more typical of less differentiated cells.
According to George Klein, a professor of immunology at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and an elder statesman of cancer immunology, Abelev’s work on alpha-fetoprotein “opened the field of carcinoembryonic antigens,” which has been of “great importance for both basic and translational research.”
In particular, the discovery raised the possibility of using the immune system to fight cancer. Unlike chemotherapy, which targets all dividing cells in the body, including normal cells, immunotherapies are designed to preferentially target cancer cells. For many years, the notion of a cancer-specific immunotherapy was a pipedream, because cancer cells were not known to differ from normal body cells in defined ways. Abelev’s discovery of alpha-fetoprotein showed that, indeed, cancer cells differ from normal cells.
After showing that alpha-fetoprotein accurately reflects the presence of cancer, Abelev went a step further and created a means for easily detecting the protein in blood using antibodies. This work led to the first industrial test for the early diagnosis of liver cancer.
“Contrary to personal life, science allows no compromise between truth and lie.”
In addition to his path-breaking scientific contributions, Dr. Abelev was known for being a supportive colleague and teacher, with a strong sense of personal integrity. “He was very generous with his time and scientific insights, always trying—in his own words—to induce the best in everybody,” says Boris Reizis, a professor of immunology at Columbia University who was an undergraduate in Abelev’s lab at Moscow State University in the early 1990s. “His personal dignity, integrity, and wisdom made even brief encounters with him an unforgettable experience.”
Being an independently minded scientist in the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s, when Abelev was a young biologist, was not easy. In 1948, Soviet authorities outlawed scientific dissent from Lysenko’s theories of environmentally acquired inheritance; scientists who wanted to pursue research on Mendelian genetics, chromosomes, and DNA were suppressed. As a result, Abelev had a hard time finding postgraduate employment. (He briefly considered taking a job at the Lenin Mausoleum Laboratory, inspecting Lenin’s body for signs of decay.) These experiences left a lasting impression on Abelev. In an essay called “On Dignity in Life and in Science,” written in 1990 at the height of perestroika, Abelev argued that human dignity based on respect, rather than on power, is the cornerstone of science. Colleagues say the essay reflected his lifelong experience of standing up to Soviet authorities.
“He showed remarkable resilience and integrity in asserting the importance of science and the resistance of the individual scientist against political pressure,” says Klein.
Garry Izraylevich Abelev was born in Moscow in 1928. After an early interest in psychology and then plant biochemistry, he shifted his primary interest to animal biochemistry, graduating from Moscow State University in 1950. In 1952, he began working under L.A. Zilber at the Gamaleya Institute for Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow where he developed his interests in cancer immunology. Abelev published more than 250 publications, and was elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1987. He was a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, and served as a member of CRI’s Scientific Advisory Council for more than 40 years, providing intellectual support to generations of cancer immunologists.