Charles Brenton Huggins

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Charles Brenton Huggins


American Surgeon

Charles B. Huggins won the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1966 for his discovery, made three decades earlier, of the relation between hormones and prostate and breast cancer. His research yielded a number of valuable ideas and techniques, most notably hormone therapy, the first nontoxic and nonradioactive chemical treatment for cancer.

Born on September 22, 1901, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Huggins was the elder of two sons born to pharmacist Charles Edward Huggins and wife Bessie Spencer Huggins. In 1920 Huggins earned his B.A. degree from Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, graduating in a class of just 25 students. Later that year he entered Harvard Medical School, from which he graduated in 1924 with both M.A. and an M.D. degrees. Huggins spent his internship at the University of Michigan Hospital, and in 1926 became instructor in surgery at the university's medical school.

A year later, in 1927, Huggins became a surgery instructor for the newly opened University of Chicago Medical School, and married Margaret Wellman; the couple had two children. Huggins became an assistant professor in 1929, then an associate professor in 1933—the same year he became an American citizen. In 1936 he attained the rank of full professor.

Though urology had originally been his focus, Huggins became interested in cancer research as early as 1930, when he met the German cancer researcher and Nobel laureate Otto Warburg (1883-1970). Using cells from the male urinary tract and bladder, Huggins began to experiment with changing normal connective tissue elements into bone. His research soon focused on the role played by chemicals and hormones in the prostate gland, the male accessory reproductive gland located at the base of the urethra. Using dogs as experimental subjects, since they are the only animal other than man known to develop cancer of the prostate, Huggins developed, in 1939, a procedure for isolating the dogs' prostate glands. This allowed him to analyze and measure glandular secretions, and Huggins went on to study human subjects with prostate cancer.

He soon noted high levels of the male sexual hormone testosterone in the secretions of cancerous prostate glands. This offered two possibilities of treatment for prostate cancer, though the first—orchiectomy, or castration—was a radical one. And though the levels of androgens, or male sex hormones, dropped markedly after orchiectomy, they often rose again, in some cases higher than before.

The other possibility for reducing testosterone levels appeared to be injecting estrogen, a female hormone; this method, however, appeared effective on only a small proportion of patients. Huggins then discovered why: the adrenal glands produced their own androgens, apparently to compensate for the lower levels induced by hormone therapy, and these androgens helped spread the cancer. Following this discovery, Huggins performed the world's first bilateral adrenalectomy in 1944, removing the two adrenal glands located above the patient's kidneys. Nine years later, he reported that a combination of adrenalectomy and cortisone therapy—another radical treatment—proved effective on about 50 percent of patients suffering with prostate or breast cancer.

Huggins had meanwhile served briefly as professor of urological surgery and director of the department of urology at Johns Hopkins University in 1946. He soon returned to the University of Chicago, and in 1951 became director of its Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research, where he served for the next 18 years. In a 1958 speech before the University of Glasgow, he referred to breast cancer as "one of the noblest of the problems of medicine;" it was around that time he and students D. M. Bergenstal and Thomas Dao developed a treatment for it that involved removal of both ovaries and both adrenal glands.

During the 1960s, when scientists debated whether birth-control pills encouraged breast cancer, Huggins analyzed his own work over the preceding decades and found that it did not. Some researchers, in fact, later suggested that the pill actually worked to discourage some forms of cancer. In 1969, three years after winning his Nobel Prize, Huggins left the Ben May Laboratory, and in 1972 returned to Acadia University as chancellor. He retired from that post and moved to Chicago, where he devoted his time to his family and his favorite music, Bach and Mozart. He died in 1997.