Searching for Possibilities, Hortobagyi Found Greatness

Published: Wednesday, Feb 17, 2016
Gabriel N. Hortobagyi, MD

Gabriel N. Hortobagyi, MD

As a boy growing up in 1940s Budapest, Hungary, Gabriel N. Hortobagyi, MD, devoured as many books as he could— receiving them as gifts and tearing into biographies about physicians and scientists, and learning about how science changed the world. He was prompted by his mother, who had wanted to become a doctor herself but never did since “it was not socially appropriate for women to go into the profession in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s.” Her influence was strong, though. “By the time I was in middle school, I knew I would go into the sciences and be a physician,” he said. “I never looked back.”

But social unrest in Hungary created some roadblocks. In 1949, the secret police (backed by the Soviet Union, which had invaded Hungary) forced families like Hortobagyi’s into concentration camps in southeast Hungary. He was 3 years old at the time. They lived there until 1953, when the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, died.

“We were given amnesty that year, on the condition that we could never return to Budapest,” said Hortobagyi. “My parents could not get a job in any supervisory positions, and neither my sisters nor I were allowed to finish our education. Had I stayed in Hungary, I would have been a driver or a street sweeper.”

Instead, his family moved to Vienna, Austria, where Hortobagyi, at age 10, didn’t know enough German to attend school, so he remained in a refugee camp. By 1957, his family had emigrated to Bogota, Colombia, where he was able to resume his schooling. He then attended the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, a public medical school in Bogota that offers admission to 120 students out of more than 6000 applicants. His family’s foresight in moving where they might find opportunity serves as just one example of a thread that’s been woven throughout Hortobagyi’s life and career as one of the world’s foremost breast cancer researchers and clinicians: to go where it’s possible to make great things happen.

Hortobagyi’s own journey took him to The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where is a professor of Medicine and the Nellie B. Connally Chair in Breast Cancer, and to a stint as president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. His research accomplishments include the development of presurgical chemotherapy regimens as well as anthracyclines and taxanes. He also helped advance the initial development of gene expression profiling in breast cancer. The irony of his journey is not lost on Hortobagyi. “I was able to surpass what could have been a completely different path in life to help countless breast cancer patients, train hundreds of clinicians in the field, and create lifesaving drug regimens that have helped transform the field of oncology from a hopeless one to one bursting with potential and lifesaving treatments,” he said.

Curious About Cancer

After finishing medical school in Colombia, Hortobagyi accepted an internal medicine clinical residency at St. Luke’s Hospital, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Why the move from Colombia to Cleveland? The program paid its residents a third more than any other residency program Hortobagyi had considered. The city also boasted a large Hungarian population at the time, giving him “a certain sense of comfort,” he said.

The Case Western residency was the launching pad for Hortobagyi’s earliest interest in oncology. In the 1960s and early 1970s, “there was no such thing as oncology, and I had not given a single thought to cancer,” he said. When physicians went on rounds, patients with cancer “were mostly looked at as ‘here are the people on death row; it’s just a question of time before they die and there is nothing we can do about them.’ If there were patients with cancer on rounds, we would skip to the rooms to someone curable. You didn’t want to tell someone, ‘You’re just going to die of your disease.’ If you’re not trained for that, it’s very difficult.”

But in 1972, his second residency year, Hortobagyi received a flyer about a cancer conference at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio; intrigued, he went. “It was a life changer,” said Hortobagyi. After the “boring talks about how lung and colon cancer kills everybody,” Emil J. Freireich, MD, DSc, a University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center researcher and fellow 2015 Giants of Cancer Care recipient, “gave this electrical dynamic speech. He said, ‘We are curing acute leukemia of childhood, and Hodgkin’s, and we are well on our way to fighting cancer. We are going to lick this disease.’” Hortobagyi was transformed.




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