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Stanley Cohen: awarded Nobel prize in medicine for his discoveries of growth factors

BMJ 2020; 368 doi: (Published 12 March 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;368:m983
  1. Bob Roehr
  1. Washington, DC, USA
  1. bobroehr{at}
Credit: Mark Humphrey/AP/Shutterstock

Newborn mice open their eyes in 12-14 days, but by injecting them with ground up salivary glands Stanley Cohen could get them to open earlier. “Every time I doubled the dose the length of time went down; I got them to open up as early as seven days.” Those experiments led him to identify epidermal growth factor, one of the foundational signalling molecules of biology, and to receiving the 1986 Nobel prize in medicine. His life was an unlikely journey, driven by hard work, good luck, and, above all, insatiable curiosity.

Early life and career

Cohen’s family story mirrored that of countless other Jewish immigrants to New York City in the early 20th century, who saw public education as a way to improve their lot. He excelled in high school and, because it was free, attended city run Brooklyn College during the Depression, graduating in 1943. A childhood bout of polio left him with a pronounced limp, which never slowed him down. It did, however, keep him from being drafted during the second world war.

“Biologists were never going to get anywhere by describing what a cell looks like—you have to know the chemistry to explain the biology,” Cohen told this reporter in an extended …

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