Janet A. Houghton, Ph.D., a distinguished oncology researcher at Southern Research whose work deepened scientists’ understanding of how to treat cancer at a cellular level, died Oct. 5, 2017, after a battle with appendiceal cancer.

Houghton was a leading cancer biologist whose goal of developing new therapies for cancer brought her to Birmingham-based Southern Research in 2015.

During a career spanning four decades, Houghton’s work primarily focused on adult colorectal cancer, and she is credited with helping to develop a treatment for the disease still used by thousands of patients every year.

“Janet was a transformative figure in oncology research, and her battle against cancer started long before she was personally touched by the disease,” said Art Tipton, Ph.D., president and CEO of Southern Research. “Her passion and towering research intellect fired her crusade against cancer, and the world is better off for her battles.”

Southern Research Janet Houghton
Southern Research oncology researcher Janet Houghton waged a personal battle against cancer.

At Birmingham-based Southern Research, Houghton served as Distinguished Fellow and the Emil Hess Endowed Chair of Cancer Biology in the non-profit organization’s Drug Discovery division.

Before coming to Southern Research, Houghton spent nine nears at the Cleveland Clinic, where she was Chair of the Department of Cancer Biology at the Lerner Research Institute and the Betsy B. DeWindt Endowed Chair for Cancer Research.

Houghton spent 29 years at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, which she joined in 1977, the same year she received a doctorate from the University of London.

While at St. Jude’s, she studied the anticancer drug 5-fluorouracil’s mechanisms of action and provided important insights on how the medicine worked against colon cancer.

Later, Houghton was among the investigators instrumental in advancing the concept that pairing 5-fluorouracil with leucovorin, a derivative of folic acid, would trigger enhanced DNA damage in cancer cells. The combination of the two drugs became the standard treatment for colon cancer in the 1980s.


Houghton’s personal battle against the disease began in early 2016, when she was diagnosed with Stage IV appendiceal cancer, a deadly malignancy so rare that only about 2,500 cases are confirmed in the U.S. each year.

Her treatment regimen included 5-fluorouracil and leucovorin, the two anticancer drugs she helped to develop, used in combination with two other medicines. She also underwent extensive chemotherapy.

In media interviews, Houghton shared the news about her battle with the Birmingham community and vowed to continuing pushing for novel cancer treatments at Southern Research.

“This life-threatening disease has given my work new meaning. I have always believed that I have and have had a very good life, and I believe in payback, giving something back to people, to our community. It has renewed my commitment to develop new therapeutic agents,” she said in March 2017.

She was a significant figure in cancer research. Her work in oncology has been the focus of more than 145 scientific peer-reviewed publications and 10 book chapters. She served on several National Institutes of Health Study Sections for expertise in her field, and she served as senior editor for the international journal Cancer Research for over 12 years.

She was a member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, the American Association of Cancer Research, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Janet was brilliant scientist whose passion for exploration and discovery really set a high standard for researchers across the world,” said Mark J. Suto, Ph.D., vice president of Southern Research’s Drug Discovery division. “Her work made a difference for many people, and we will deeply miss her expertise and optimism.”

To help carry on her legacy in life-saving research, the family asks that donations be made to St. Jude’s or the Emil Hess Endowed Chair at Southern Research. For more information on how to donate, please contact Brynne MacCann at 205-581-2276.