The Jack Cole Chair in Pediatric Oncology and Hematology is bestowed on Dr V. Michael Whitehead, director of hematology and coordinator of oncology at the Montreal Children's Hospital.
A long standing benefactor of the Montreal Childrens Hospital, Mr Jack Cole, has decided to guarantee the advancement of research into childrens diseases, specifically those associated with hematological disorders, by providing $1.5 million to endow the first chair in a Canadian university to be dedicated to teaching and research in pediatric oncology-hematology. The Jack Cole Chair in pediatric oncology-hematology will be bestowed upon Dr. V. Michael Whitehead, Director of Hematology and Coordinator of Oncology at the Montreal Childrens Hospital at a ceremony to be held at 6:00 p.m., Thursday, May 29, 1997, at the Montreal Childrens Hospital, 2300 Tupper Street, Montreal.
Dean of the McGill Faculty of Medicine, Dr. Abraham Fuks, himself a cancer researcher, is particularly happy to accept the thirty third of the thirty four endowed chairs in medicine and the fifth one in the field of oncology alone. "The choice of Michael Whitehead as Jack Cole Professor of pediatric oncology hematology is most appropriate since his scientific achievements and his involvement in a number of national and international research projects are widely respected."
Dr. Whitehead sees in this great honour the recognition of what he has brought to the hematology service of the Montreal Childrens Hospital as well as the guarantee that, when he retires, his work will be carried on by a rising star in his field. "I do basic research focusing on a particular antivitamin, the drug methotrexate, which is one of the key drugs used with a combination of others in the treatment and cure of certain varieties of leukemia," explains Dr. Whitehead. "Methotrexate has the particularity of binding really tightly to a key enzyme in the cell, which is required for the vitamin folic acid to do its job. This makes the cell folic acid deficient and it dies. This property led to recognition that methotrexate was highly effective in killing leukemic cells." Dr. Whitehead is particularly interested in finding out how the leukemic cell handles methotrexate. "It is a complicated story because methotrexate like folic acid changes once it gets into the cell. It turns into a polyglutamate, a form which is more potent than methotrexate. This form stays longer inside the cell and thereby does most of the killing." This metamorphosis of methotrexate inside the leukemic cell, as well as the characterization of its action, was first described by Dr.Whitehead in the early 70s. He also published the results of clinical trials demonstrating that those patient whose leukemic cells took up large amounts of methotrexate fared much better than those whose cells did not (65% cures Vs 25%).
There is still a lot to do on the front of childhood leukemia: there is evidence of an overall increase in childhood leukemia and the variety of leukemia which killed Penny Cole, Mr. Coles daughter, when she was about to enter her first year in medicine at McGill is still difficult to cure. But Dr. Whitehead is not about to throw in the towel.
"Advances result from successes in clinical trials, trying new drugs and old drugs in different combinations. Our rate of success has been increasing for the past two decades and more. We discover new drugs and define subgroups of patients likely to respond to this or that combination which means that today we cure 60% of children with leukemia whereas thirty years ago our rate of success was less than 10%."