Michael B. Sporn, MD, a visionary cancer researcher with an unorthodox approach to cancer treatment who was a professor emeritus of pharmacology and toxicology at Geisel School of Medicine, died on Sept. 29. He was 89.
“We will all miss Mike,” says Dean Duane Compton, PhD. “He was inspirational for his commitment to science, particularly in tackling the tough question for how we might prevent cancer, and in his generosity by freely sharing his discoveries with the entire scientific community.”
Though trained in medicine, Sporn spent most of his career as a bench scientist. The consummate basic science researcher, innovative thinker, and advocate for cancer prevention, was also a prolific author whose numerous articles alerting people about the importance and challenges of adopting a prevention approach to cancer have been cited more than 67,000 times by fellow scientists. His landmark investigations and writing changed closely held ideas about the dynamics of cancer, in both how it begins and in carcinogenesis, laid the foundation for the field of chemoprevention.
“Michael was a beloved member of the Dartmouth Cancer Center, where even as professor emeritus he was a daily presence in our halls, contributing new ideas and conveying boundless energy,” recalls Steven D. Leach, MD, Preston T. and Virginia R. Kelsey Distinguished Chair in Cancer, associate dean for cancer programs, and director, Dartmouth Cancer Center at Geisel.
“Nationally and internationally, he is widely known as the "father" of cancer chemoprevention—an idea whose time has come in the form of large national clinical trials evaluating cancer prevention strategies that Michael's work helped to foster. It is hard to imagine a more impactful legacy than Michael's.”
Sporn began working on cancer prevention more than 40 years ago. He believed cancer treatment should begin with chemoprevention—a term he coined in the 1970s that refers to preventive therapy—because cancer is not a disease that starts suddenly. It is a chronic disease with a very a long latency period in which people are asymptomatic. This belief challenged existing cancer treatment dogma based on treating end-stage disease with cytotoxic drugs.
His most significant contributions to chemoprevention were during his 17 years at the National Institute of Health as chief of the Laboratory of Chemoprevention at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). His lab’s first major achievement showed how derivatives of vitamin A (retinoids) could prevent, and treat cancers of the bladder, breast, colon, and other organs in rodent models. The lab later discovered transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β), a protein with an ability to either promote or inhibit cell growth depending on the molecular microenvironment.
Then at Geisel, his lab was the first to characterize the peptide TGF-β and demonstrate its role as a negative autocrine regulator of cell growth, and loss of that function in certain tumor cells. He worked for many years in the field of experimental carcinogenesis, focusing on the synergistic actions of a variety of chemo preventive agents including retinoids, vitamin D analogs, synthetic estrogen response modifiers and PPARgamma agonists.
In 2018, he founded his own company Triterpenoid Therapeutics, Inc. to develop and commercialize new compounds for cancer treatment and prevention. The company’s first clinical targets were multiple myeloma and glioblastoma multiforme. And in 2020 he and Tillman Gerngross, PhD, a professor of engineering at Thayer School of Engineering, and a biotechnology entrepreneur, received the Dartmouth Technology Innovation and Commercialization award from the Office of Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer at the Dartmouth Entrepreneurs Forum.
“Michael’s commitment to exploring new treatments for patients was inspiring. We met many times to explore different avenues of moving his company forward and Michael simply would not give up. His tenacity was exemplary, and his entrepreneurial spirit will be missed in the Upper Valley,” Gerngross says.
Sporn also spent the past five years as a palliative care volunteer, “A role that had great meaning for him,” says Kathy Kirkland, MD, FAAHPM, Dorothy and John J. Byrne, Jr, Distinguished Chair in Palliative Medicine, and a professor of medicine and of health policy and clinical practice.
“Always a physician and scientist at heart, he initially processed his experiences with patients and families through the lens of medicine—and how the landscape of medicine had evolved throughout his lifetime—but found a way to set this aside to meet patients where they are. As a bereaved spouse himself, Michael intimately understood how life can be impacted by the death of a loved one. He connected meaningfully with the care partners of patients at the end of life through generous listening, compassion, and thoughtful understanding. We will miss his steadfast presence on our team.”
During his long career Sporn received several prestigious awards for his work, including the Lila Gruber Award for Cancer Research from the American Academy of Dermatology, the inaugural American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and the Cancer Research Foundation of America Award for Excellence in Cancer Prevention Research, a Medal of Honor from the American Cancer Society, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research, the Komen Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction, an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and prized lectureships at the American Association for Cancer Research's annual gathering of cancer researchers. In 2004, the NCI named him its first Eminent Scholar, and in 2007 he was also a member of the President of the United States’ Cancer Advisory Board.
Journalist Clifton Leaf, who took a critical look at the war on cancer in his book, The Truth in Small Doses, aptly described Sporn in an excerpt from the book in a 2014 Dartmouth Medicine story, “Heretic in the Lab”.
“I had driven up to Hanover, N.H., to speak with him for an article for Fortune magazine. And when he saw me standing outside the local inn on the morning of our interview, he bounded through the snow from his Subaru Forester to greet me. The car was his “eighth straight Subaru,” he volunteered just after saying hello, the corners of his mouth lifting into an unbroken grin.
“Somehow, it was hard to picture this good-natured smirk of a fellow—a man who had owned eight straight Subarus—as being any kind of a revolutionary. But that he was. Mike Sporn, graying, twinkling, was then a month shy of his 71st birthday. And if anything, he was more subversive than ever.”