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November 22, 2011
Isaac Djerassi, Pioneer Oncologist, Dies at 86
Dr. Isaac Djerassi, 86, a pioneer Philadelphia medical researcher and clinician in the fields of hematology and oncology, died Nov. 12.
Djerassi played a central role in developing centrifuge and filtration techniques for platelet and white-cell transfusions to support aggressive cancer chemotherapy. He received the Albert and Mary Lasker Award in 1972 for these contributions.
Born in Sofia, Bulgaria, and trained at the Hebrew University Medical School, Djerassi was a protege of the late Dr. Sidney Farber, who invited him in 1954 to a Harvard fellowship for training in laboratory research and pediatric investigative medicine at the Children's Hospital of Boston Jimmy Fund center.
There, in collaboration with Dr. Farber and close friend Dr. Edmund Klein, platelet transfusions were shown to be safe for humans when controlling bleeding in thrombocytopenia and acute leukemia.
At Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, where he was director of its blood bank, Djerassi achieved one of the earliest remissions for childhood leukemia in 1964 and long-term survivors in 1966. At Children's Hospital, he was also involved in advancing hemophilia treatment and was the first doctor to apply Factor 8 cryoprecipitate to children.
The procedure to isolate Factor 8 cryo, first developed by Judith Pool, Ph.D., was modified by Djerassi and his fellow, Dr. Pattiporn Banchet from Thailand. Together, they suspended the Factor 8 in a small amount of the donor's own plasma and the production of blood-clotting cryo became routine among blood banks nationally until the development of large scale, commercially bottled Factor 8 in the late 1970s.
The Blood Bank at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia under Djerassi received wide community support and the Philadelphia Eagles were prominent in adopting the cause of defeating children's leukemia.
In 1969, Djerassi began treating adult patients at the Mercy Catholic Medical Centers at Misericordia and Fitzgerald Mercy and developed the concept of a cancer "mini-center." By this he meant a medical facility that provided the best in chemotherapy with the latest in supportive care -- platelet and white-cell transfusions -- followed by "adjuvant treatment" -- follow-up treatments to prevent recurrence after what appears to be successful surgery.
He provided all such treatments to hundreds of patients from around the world at Mercy Catholic until his retirement from active practice in 2001. Villanova University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1977.
Djerassi attended high school at the Catholic French College but was sent to a transit camp by the Nazis in 1943. The Bulgarian government refused to permit deportation of Bulgarian Jews and by 1944, Djerassi was back in Sofia where he began medical school.
After Israel won independence, he was among 50,000 Bulgarians who immigrated there. In 1951, he graduated from the first medical school class of the Hebrew University.
Djerassi co-founded the Djerassi-Elias Institute for Cancer Research at Tel Aviv University.
He was a member of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, Congregation Rodeph Shalom and Congregation Mikveh Israel.
Djerassi is survived by his wife, Tika Djerassi; daughter Ady Djerassi; son Ramy Djerassi; sister Mati Djerassi; and five grandchildren.
Memorial donations can be made to: the Friends of Tel Aviv University, 39 Broadway, Suite 1510, New York, NY 10006.