Tag: Cancer Research

NIH director thanks Southern Research for ‘treatments, cures and real hope’

In a message to mark Southern Research’s 75th anniversary, Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, praised the organization’s scientists for making significant advances against cancer and other diseases.

“Since 1941, Southern Research has made advances that have helped people all across this country – in fact, all around the globe,” Collins said in a video shared with the Birmingham-based non-profit.

In particular, the leader of NIH, the nation’s chief medical research agency, noted the achievements of Southern Research’s long-standing cancer research program. The organization’s scientists played key roles in developing effective chemotherapy methods and in the discovery and development of numerous FDA-approved oncology treatments.

“Of the 200 or so drugs currently used to treat cancer, seven were discovered at Southern Research,” Collins said. “In fact, two of them – fludarabine and clofarabine – are even on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines.”

In addition, Southern Research has provided vital research tools and models that allowed other scientists to advance the development of cancer therapeutics, he said.


While efforts to discover new oncology drugs continues at Southern Research, Collins noted that its scientists are also working on potential therapeutics for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and tuberculosis, among others.

At the same time, Southern Research is helping researchers around the world test new disease-fighting strategies. “The area of HIV/AIDS research has been a real standout,” he said.

Collins singled out Southern Research’s work in the field of reproductive toxicology, which seeks to prevent birth defects, and on the Zika virus, which has suddenly emerged as a serious threat to public health around the world.

Collins also responded to a letter from Southern Research CEO and President Art Tipton, Ph.D., who thanked the NIH for providing the Birmingham non-profit with more than $500 million in funding over the past three decades.

“Mr. Tipton, I want to let you, along with all of Southern Research and its supporters, know that you are indeed welcome,” Collins said. “And on behalf of the NIH and the American taxpayer, I want to thank you, Southern Research, for a tremendous return on this investment – a return measured in treatments, cures and real hope for a better future for people all around the world.

National Cancer Institute extends toxicology contract with Southern Research

NCI extends long-term toxicology contract with Southern Research.
NCI extends long-term contract with Southern Research for preclinical toxicology screening of cancer drugs.

Southern Research has been awarded a five-year IDIQ contract with a potential value of $19 million from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to study the preclinical toxicology of new drugs under development for the treatment of cancer — contract number HHSN261201600018I.

The contract is one of three ongoing contracts between Southern Research and the NCI, and has been in place continuously since 1979. This is the latest in a series of contract extensions for the organization.

The two additional ongoing contracts between Southern Research and the NCI are for research on the pharmacology of potential new cancer drugs, and for evaluation of drugs intended for the prevention of cancer.

“Our ultimate goal with this contract is to help the NCI develop an understanding of how different drug candidates interact with and affect living systems,” said Charles Hébert, Ph.D., senior program leader and principal investigator on the project for Southern Research. “The collection of this information is necessary so the FDA can determine whether a particular drug candidate is safe for clinical trial testing in humans.”

Toxicology testing is an integral part of the drug development process. In order to determine the safety of a new drug candidate, researchers must first conduct dose range-finding studies to establish the maximum tolerated dose, and to aid in the selection of dose levels for use in further testing.

Once the appropriate dose range has been established for the selected species, larger and more detailed definitive studies are conducted. Those definitive studies differs from dose range-finding studies in that they require deeper and more thorough analysis of the ways a particular drug may affect animals, and by extension, humans. Ultimately, the definitive studies provide key information that is used by the FDA to determine the recommended dose options for any drug candidate approved for clinical trial.

“Southern Research has been at the pioneering forefront of cancer research for more than 70 years, and we are particularly proud of our work with the National Cancer Institute,” said Art Tipton, Ph.D., president and CEO of Southern Research. “We have invested heavily to develop unique capabilities and institutional knowledge in this field, and work diligently to stay on the forefront of the field enabling us to improve people’s lives by finding cures to some very challenging diseases.”

Clofarabine co-inventor Jack Secrist talks about drug discovery

Drug discovery researchers like Jack Secrist are motivated by a strong desire to see their work save lives and make a profound difference.

Secrist, the former head of Drug Discovery at Southern Research, is co-inventor of clofarabine, a drug approved by the Federal Drug Administration in 2004 for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in pediatric patients like Frances Grace Hirs.

Frances Grace was battling a third bout of ALL in 2013 when she was treated with clofarabine, which helped put her on the road to recovery. (Read a story about her treatment.)

clofarabine-poster“This is what we all aspire to as drug discovery researchers, moving life-saving compounds from conception to clinic,” Secrist said in 2005, shortly after clofarabine received FDA approval.

In a new interview, Secrist talks about how he and his Southern Research colleagues discovered clofarabine and how the drug moved along to the path to become the first treatment for childhood cancer approved by the FDA in more than a decade.

In this Q&A, Secrist also shares his views on how Southern Research, which has discovered seven FDA-approved drugs used in cancer treatment, has been able to consistently develop new therapies that address unmet medical needs.

Southern Research was visited recently by Frances Grace Hirs, who was treated with clofarabine after a second leukemia relapse. Her parents credit the drug with stabilizing her condition, making a bone marrow transplant possible. As a co-inventor of the drug, do you hear stories like this often?

Secrist: In my experience, at least as it pertains to chemists who are inventors of cancer drugs that end up being FDA approved, it is rare that you would meet someone who had benefited from the drug unless it happens to be a family member, friend, or acquaintance. The inventors are far removed from both the oncologists who select the drugs and the patients who take them.

Southern Research Secrist
Clofarbine co-inventor Jack Secrist

In this situation, I can relate two stories. I did meet a father and a daughter who had benefited from the drug in Birmingham, and they were focused on making sure that others who might benefit from the drug would be appropriately informed.

The other time that I saw patients who benefited from the drug was at the FDA hearing where the drug was approved. A father brought his son to the hearing and he took advantage of the public forum to relate the story of his son and how this drug has certainly saved his life. He was holding the boy, who was perhaps five or six, in his arms as he spoke. It was a moving scene.

How did the work that led to clofarabine get started?

Secrist: This question is somewhat more technical, but I will provide some information about how we moved toward the drug that became clofarabine. First, we were working in the nucleoside area, looking for drugs that would affect DNA function in cancer cells, which was at the time the best way to develop a new cancer drug. We chose to work on nucleosides since they are the building blocks of DNA, and we felt that finding something that would be recognized by the cancer cells, and perhaps have selectivity, was more likely in this area.

At the time, around 1983, we had funding from National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the form of what is called a program project grant to search for new drugs in this area, and to evaluate them in biological systems. There were two potential drugs that looked promising at the time that were nucleosides, and we had the detailed biological data to be aware of structural concerns with both drugs.

John Montgomery (an organic chemist and key member of the cancer research team) and I then formulated a plan to make a series of new compounds that would be similar enough that they might have activity, but would have structural changes that would overcome the concerns we saw with these two potential drugs. We made this series of compounds, and the end result was clofarabine.

By the way, both of the other compounds also became FDA approved: one of them is fludarabine and the other is cladribine. Interestingly, the three compounds, though very similar in structure, are used for different forms of leukemia.

Can you recount any significant developments or insights that occurred during your work on this project?

Secrist: The first insight that we developed, which really was just a confirmation of what we already felt, was that very small changes in the structure of a molecule can result in very large changes in biological and clinical activity. The utility of clofarabine, fludarabine and cladribine is a clear demonstration of that fact, and it can be seen in other areas, as well.


Another insight that was strengthened was that the more robust the biological (anticancer) data is on a compound, the more likely it is to become FDA approved. Compounds with some activity and selectivity, but not really strong data, most likely will not make it through to approval. Clofarabine had very strong data supporting its move into clinical trials.

It is also true, by the way, that there is not a connection between what human tumors a potential drug can cure in model systems and what tumors it may cure in humans. It would be wonderful if that was the case, but at least with the current models no such correlation exists. Again, we get back to the fact that robust activity and selectivity data across a wide range of tumor types is the best indicator.

When clofarabine received FDA approval in 2004, it was the first new pediatric leukemia to hit the market in more than a decade. How would you assess its significance?

Secrist: Thinking back to the clinical development of the drug, which started at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, there was a critical chance happening. A family had a child who had gone through the available drugs for his leukemia, and he was not responding. They asked to be able to try clofarabine, which was not yet available for trials, and their request was granted. The child responded immediately, and the family was truly grateful.

That chance happening suggested the best path to approval, that is, through a focus on childhood leukemia, though there were of course adult trials as well. The drug clearly helped children, and the FDA was very interested in finding a new drug for childhood cancers, and they were very helpful and supportive.

When the ODAC (Oncology Drug Advisory Committee), a group of outside clinicians, voted for approval, the FDA was really pleased to have the first new drug to treat childhood cancers in more than a decade.

Southern Research has discovered seven drugs used in cancer treatment. What made the organization such a hotbed for the discovery of anticancer drugs?

Secrist: In considering why Southern Research was so successful in developing new cancer drugs, I believe that there are a number of reasons. First, we had extremely talented scientists who were dedicated to the development of new drugs that would be useful in the treatment of cancer. The Dream Team in that regard comprised Howard Skipper, John Montgomery, Frank Schabel, and Lee Bennett. They worked together for many years, and together with their staff, were a very effective team.

Southern Research cancer team
The Southern Research ‘Dream Team:’ from left, Frank Schabel, Lee Bennett, Howard Skipper, and John Montgomery.

Second, that team developed an efficient and effective approach to the development of potential new drugs. New compounds were evaluated rapidly, and those with potential were subjected to more detailed evaluations as soon as possible, and compounds that had no activity or weak activity were set aside to make way for new compounds. This iterative approach to drug discovery is still in use today, though the biological systems have evolved over the years.

Finally, in the early years the Dream Team had not only their own ideas on the type of compounds to pursue in the search for new cancer drugs, but also the input of the cancer research team at the NIH. Thus, Southern Research scientists had access to the latest information available to NIH, including areas of activity, clinical results, and evaluation model advances.

In the early years Institute scientists would go up to NIH to present results, and would of course hear presentations about the results of others. In later years we used scientific meetings and personal contacts to gain that information. The result was an ability on our part to look in more fertile fields for new cancer drugs.


Southern Research at 75: ‘Boss Kettering’ provides key early support

Charles Kettering, the genius engineer behind many of General Motors’ breakthrough innovations, racked up 186 patents and earned a reputation as a great inventor in his day.

Southern Research Skipper Kettering
Southern Research’s Howard Skipper, left, talks with famed inventor Charles Kettering, a strong supporter of Skipper’s cancer research.

He also became a high-profile supporter of Southern Research in its early days, thanks to a relationship with the new research organization’s chairman, Thomas Martin.

Though the dynamic founder of Southern Research and the inventor of the automobile starter motor had exchanged letters since 1934, they didn’t actually meet until both attended a nutrition conference in New York in 1945. Martin told Kettering about the work getting under way in Birmingham.

Intrigued, Kettering contributed advice, expertise and funding to help accelerate growth at Southern Research, particularly the cancer program headed by Howard Skipper, Ph.D.

“I do remember very well that a lot of the early money when I joined Skipper’s group came from Kettering, and it was pretty soon after that we also got money from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation,” recalled John Montgomery, Ph.D., a key member of Southern Research cancer team from 1952 until 1990.

“Sloan was the money man at General Motors when Ket was the inventor, and they tossed some money in the pot, too. And so we had enough money to begin to do something,” Montgomery added.

In 1945, around the time that Southern Research was launching its first projects, Kettering joined his GM colleague to open the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research (SKI) in New York. SKI’s director was Cornelius Rhoads, who had served with Skipper in the Army’s chemical warfare section during World War II.

SR 75th_Logo_Horz_RGBThese connections would drive growth in Skipper’s labs.


Kettering made frequent visits to check on Southern Research’s progress. The first came on Nov. 12, 1947, dedication day for the organization’s first new building – Laboratory No. 5.

At the time, Southern Research had about 50 scientists, working on early projects such as heat pump technology, extending food uses of peanuts, new paints from coal by-products, and chemical detectors for the Army. Kettering talked to the scientists, toured the facilities, and spoke that night at the Chairman’s Dinner.

Charles Kettering Southern Research
Charles Kettering speaks at Southern Research during his first visit in 1947.

“Set up your laboratories, equip them,” he told the researchers. “You cannot tell what is going to come out of them now, or 10 or 15 years hence. Your achievements will be different from what you now think, but they will be wonderful.”

He was keenly interested in Skipper’s cancer program, which was started the year before thanks to a $25,000 gift from Mobile businessman Ben May.

“One of my favorite memories is of Boss Kettering, as we called him, and his visits to our group,” Montgomery recalled in an oral history of Southern Research published in 1991. “He came to see us three or four times a year, to talk to the boys and see how things were getting along on cancer research.”

He did more than just offer encouragement to Southern Research’s scientists. He made possible the organization’s first permanent labs for biomedical research — the Kettering-Meyer Laboratory.

The Charles F. Kettering Foundation contributed $200,000, and Birmingham’s Robert Meyer Foundation donated $100,000 for the lab. Kettering attended the groundbreaking on June 26, 1953, and Sloan was on hand to turn the first shovel.

Significantly, Sloan agreed to provide substantial funding to advance the cancer work being done at Southern Research under partnership with SKI.

Just five years later, K-M Laboratory II opened on Southern Research’s campus, a project spurred by the cancer program’s rapid growth.

Kettering was among Southern Research’s many important early benefactors. Besides May and the Meyer family, these include Robert I. Ingalls, Harry Frueauff Jr., Daniel Construction Co. and the Daniel Foundation.


This is Part Four of a series looking at the history of Southern Research.

Southern Research at 75: Ben May’s gift launches a cancer program

Southern Research Howard Skipper
Dr. Howard Skipper led Southern Research’s cancer program to many advances in chemotherapy.

Mobile lumber magnate Ben May wanted Southern Research to do something special with his $25,000 gift in early 1946.

The non-profit research organization’s original charter spelled out a mission to support the growth of Southern industry, but May demanded that his donation focus on improving human welfare in the region.

May’s seed money launched Southern Research’s cancer program, which over several decades has contributed to significant advances in cancer treatment and drug discovery.

Southern Research’s work in the 1950s and 1960s defined the fundamentals of effective cancer chemotherapy at a time when there was widespread skepticism about the practice. Led by Dr. Howard Skipper, the team demonstrated the principles of combination chemotherapy to counter resistance to a single drug.

Skipper’s strategy was straightforward. He would harness all of Southern Research’s resources to develop “concepts, hypotheses, theories, rules, laws, principles, mathematical models,” anything that would speed progress in the battle against cancer.

“Trial and error is a slow business,” Skipper recalled later. “But we have helped in forming a number of hypotheses that have withstood the test of time and proved helpful in providing guidance to many of our clinical associates in this country and abroad.”


Early on, Southern Research’s cancer program developed close ties to the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York, whose director, Dr. Cornelius Rhoads, had worked with Skipper in the Army Chemical Warfare Section during World War II. The Sloan-Kettering connection acted as a springboard.

SR 75th_Logo_Horz_RGBIn the 1950s, major funding for Southern Research’s cancer work began flowing in from the National Cancer Institute, a relationship still intact today, and the American Cancer Society, among others. Many individuals followed May’s lead with significant gifts.

Skipper’s cancer research program quickly grew in prominence.

Southern Research’s budget for health-related research in 1950 totaled less than $73,000. Ten years later, the figure was $1.7 million, more than half the entire budget.

Medical research remains a key focus for the organization.


Ben May
Ben May

May’s involvement with Southern Research didn’t stop with that game-changing $25,000 gift. He joined its board of directors in 1951 and remained a trustee for more than two decades. He also sponsored several research projects and contributed to the capital fund.

May and Skipper remained close over the years, often exchanging letters.

On Feb. 18, 1972, May replied to a letter he had just received from Skipper.

“Dear Howard:

“Thanks a lot for your letter of February 16. I note that you feel that my seed money was not wasted at the time of the Southern Research decisions. If there was success, I figure it was due to your ability and fine work,” May wrote.

In early November that year, May and Dr. Martin Perlman of Mobile traveled to Birmingham to visit Skipper at Southern Research. May sent a letter of thanks to Skipper on Nov. 9. “It was a real pleasure to be with you again,” he wrote, “and I felt fortunate that I could make the trip and see you as I did.”

A few days later, May was dead.

Soon after, Skipper wrote Perlman:

“I loved Mr. May. You may know it. I know that he knew it. I shall always be grateful to you for bringing him to the SRI Dinner not long ago, and for allowing us to have lunch and visit with you just a week before his passing.

“I sensed that he was happy with what he started here and that he was proud, almost as a father would be proud, or what we have been able to do and are trying to do,” Skipper wrote. “This is what I wanted so much for him to feel, but one can never repay the sort of help and inspiration he gave so unselfishly.”


This is Part Three of a series looking at the history of Southern Research.

How Southern Research cancer advances changed a life

Allen Tucker, left, poses with his brother Alex, a member of Auburn's track team. As a child, Allen was treated for leukemia with drugs Southern Research helped develop.
Allen Tucker, left, poses with his brother Alex, a member of Auburn’s track team, at a recent meet. As a child, Allen was treated for leukemia with drugs Southern Research helped develop.

Southern Research physicist Jim Tucker has spent most of his career tackling the challenges that must be overcome to make space flight possible, so he knows all about the organization’s important contributions to the Space Shuttle and other programs.

Tucker has also seen first-hand the impact of Southern Research’s breakthrough work in a completely different field – cancer research.

His 23-year-old son, Allen, is alive today thanks to the pioneering work of Southern Research scientists who discovered the fundamentals of chemotherapy and helped developed the drugs used in his treatment.

“It has always been cemented in my mind that Southern Research is one of those bastions of research that changes your life,” Tucker said. “That was never in doubt, but this has been reaffirming for me in a powerful way.”

The story begins in August 1996, when Allen was just 3. Though he was born with Down Syndrome, Allen was a healthy child until Acute Lymphatic Leukemia (ALL) struck. At first, he was lethargic and increasingly withdrawn. Then the pain started.

The pain was so severe that Allen let out a scream when the family car hit a speed bump on the way to Children’s Hospital. By this time, Allen was running a fever and had completely stopped moving.

Tucker and his wife, Pam, were terrified when the doctor diagnosed ALL. The chemotherapy, though, restored hope.

“It was a virtual resurrection. If you’ve ever seen a child with leukemia about to start the treatment, it’s frightening,” Tucker said. “Allen was motionless and had a morphine drip. Then they started treatment, and within two or three days, he was back. It was amazing.”


Tucker said Allen’s treatment included doses of methotrexate, 6-Mercaptopurine (6-MP), and Leucoveron — three medicines that Southern Research played a prominent role in developing.

Southern Research scientists discovered a superior method for producing methotrexate, a drug that is used against a range of autoimmune disorders, and the organization held a patent on Leucoveron’s method of production. In addition, Southern Research scientists performed the fundamental biochemistry work on 6-MP, an important chemotherapy drug.

“That was quite remarkable to me,” Tucker said.

Later, Tucker began to understand that Southern Research’s groundbreaking work on chemotherapy had played an even more significant underlying role in Allen’s treatment. That’s because Southern Research scientists led by Howard Skipper decades earlier had established many of the principles that paved the way for effective chemotherapy.

Skipper and his team showed that every malignant cell has to be eradicated to ensure patient survival and that chemotherapy drugs given in combination can overcome resistance. Skipper also introduced the concept that a dose of chemotherapy kills a specific percentage of cancer cells rather than a specific number – an important treatment insight.

“The work Howard Skipper did here essentially led to the cure for leukemia,” said Tucker, who heads Southern Research’s materials research group. “I’m a physicist, so statistics are big to me, and it was his statistical revelations that cured my son’s cancer. He made a huge impact on a lot of lives, including mine.”


After Allen left Children’s, he still faced a grueling 2.5 years of chemotherapy to make sure every last cancer cell was gone. Once the treatment was complete, Tucker had a message for his Southern Research co-workers.

“We want to remind people here that without their work, our son would still be in tremendous pain, battling a disease that could have taken his life,” he said in a 1999 interview for SRItems, the internal publication.

Back then, Tucker wouldn’t use the word “cure” because he feared a recurrence. Today, Allen attends an adult special-needs program three times a week, where he can enjoy art and music. He remains cancer-free.

“The concept of a cure is something I can talk about 17 years later. He was 6 when he came off chemotherapy; now he’s 23,” Tucker said. “That’s where Southern Research comes in.”

Learn more about Southern Research’s current cancer research.

Cancer researcher Wallace Brockman to be remembered at service

Wallace Brockman,standing, confers with Glynn Wheeler about the cross-linking of DNA by the nitrosoureas.
Wallace Brockman, standing, confers with Glynn Wheeler about the cross-linking of DNA by the nitrosoureas.

The late Wallace Brockman, a key member of Southern Research’s pioneering cancer research team, will be remembered at a special service in Birmingham on Saturday.

A memorial service for Brockman, who died in Virginia in April at age 91, is set for 3 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church at 2100 Fourth Ave. North in downtown Birmingham.

In the early 1950s, Brockman, who received a doctorate in organic chemistry from Vanderbilt University, joined the group of Southern Research scientists assembled by Howard Skipper who developed the initial principles of cancer chemotherapy.

Brockman was one of the first researchers to tackle the problem of why some cancer cells are able to resist chemotherapy drugs. He reasoned that biochemical differences in resistant cells act as a shield for the cancer, and he devoted years to identifying these differences.

In 1963, Brockman, then head of the Drug Resistance Section at Southern Research, published a book chapter that outlined the mechanisms of resistance recognized at that time. Cancer researchers have praised the work as “an elegant biochemical framework for resistance” and “a highly prescient synopsis of resistance mechanisms.”

With these molecular-level mechanisms in mind, the team at Southern Research began experimenting with combinations of anticancer drugs. They showed that cancer resistant to one class of drugs could be killed by another. Today, cancer is generally treated with combination chemotherapy.

Brockman continued to contribute to the scientific community’s understanding of the biochemical action of antitumor and antiviral drugs until he retired from Southern Research in 1990.

“Dr. Brockman’s scientific work at Southern Research significantly advanced our knowledge of how to effectively target cancer cells resistant to treatment,” said Art Tipton, Ph.D., president and CEO. “His insights into the mechanisms of resistance laid a foundation for life-saving therapeutic approaches.”

Brockman is survived by his wife of 67 years, Jean Early Brockman; two daughters, Alison Brockman Booth and Anne Brockman Hoos; and two granddaughters, Liza and Meredith Hoos. Read an obituary.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in his name to The American Cancer Society.


Wallace Brockman's work at Southern Research over nearly four decades contributed to the understanding of cancer cell resistance.
Wallace Brockman’s work at Southern Research over nearly four decades contributed to the understanding of cancer cell resistance.

E.A. Dulmadge: Pursuing a research dream and attacking cancer

Elizabeth Ann Dulmadge – E.A., as she was known to her friends — arrived at Southern Research Institute in 1956 with more than a decade of experience in a clinical microbiology laboratory. She soon became involved in a significant new area of inquiry for the institute: cancer research.

Over several decades, Dulmadge’s work in Southern Research’s anticancer drug screening program helped the Birmingham-based organization make important strides in the battle against a disease doctors still struggle to understand.

To mark Women’s History Month, Southern Research is highlighting the careers of some of the female scientists and technicians who have made meaningful contributions to the institute over its 75 years of scientific investigation.

“E.A. Dulmadge should be an inspiration to many young people today, particularly girls interested in science,” said Art Tipton, Ph.D., president and CEO of Southern Research. “E.A. pursued her dream of conducting research that could help save lives, and her valuable work over many years accomplished that.”

Dulmadge came to the institute after earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Birmingham-Southern College and working for 11 years as supervisor of the clinical microbiology lab at University Hospital, now UAB.

“I wanted more of a challenge to see what I could do,” she recalled in a 1981 interview to mark her 25th anniversary at Southern Research.


Her sense of timing in 1956 was ideal. After arriving at Southern Research, she spent six months testing antiviral agents for pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis, then transferred to the institute’s fledgling anticancer drug screening program.

She worked alongside Dr. Frank Schabel, whose groundbreaking research with Dr. Howard Skipper and others at Southern Research advanced the role of chemotherapy as an effective cancer treatment and expanded the understanding of how to better counter the disease.

“Dr. Schabel put me in charge of the cell culture work since my background in microbiology was an excellent prerequisite for this type of work,” she recalled.

In those days, pharmaceutical companies were developing large numbers of synthetic drugs, and it was up to Southern Research to test them for the National Cancer Institute. Dulmadge and the team annually screened 5,000 to 7,000 compounds in cell cultures – cells grown under controlled conditions, perfect for experimental studies.

Over the years, she continued her work with cell cultures, investigating the effects of antitumor agents on laboratory-grown tumors and studying cells resistant to anticancer agents. Her inquiries included an extensive look into tumor stem cells, or those cells that give rise to cancer. She also developed effective methods of growing tumor colonies for the screening tests.


Dulmadge, who contributed to at least two dozen scientific papers with her Southern Research colleagues, felt a deep sense of accomplishment in the institute’s chemotherapy research.

“I think of how much more we know about cancer chemotherapy now that we did in the beginning of the program,” she said in the 1981 interview. “It’s been a privilege to work here.”

Dulmadge retired in 1992, after 36 years at Southern Research. At her death, she left a majority of her estate to Birmingham-Southern, which created the Elizabeth A. Dulmadge Scholarship Fund in 2004 for students majoring in biology or music.

Southern Research’s anticancer drug expertise has led to the discovery of six FDA-approved medicines that treat the disease. The organization remains a key player in cancer research, having received more than $90 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health over the past two decades.

Mary Trader: Unraveling leukemia’s mysteries in a Southern Research lab

Mary Trader
Mary Trader

When Mary Trader joined Southern Research in 1966, she had a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from St. Mary’s Dominican College in her hometown of New Orleans and plans to stick around for one year.

Trader’s one year blossomed into a long career at Southern Research that saw her rise to head the Experimental Leukemia Section, where she played a significant role in the institute’s pioneering chemotherapy work.

“You can’t help but feel you have made some contribution to eradicating a dread disease,” Trader recalled in a 1981 interview marking her 25th year at Southern Research.

Because March is Women’s History Month, Southern Research is highlighting the contributions of several of the organization’s prominent female scientists over its 75 years of operation.

“Southern Research has been fortunate to have employed many great women scientists like Mary Trader in its history,” said Art Tipton, Ph.D., president and CEO. “Their careful and thoughtful work in our labs has deepened the scientific community’s understanding of cancer and other diseases.”

Trader’s career at Southern Research began as the search for new cancer-fighting drugs accelerated in its Birmingham labs, thanks to a steady stream of funding from the National Cancer Institute. For Trader, the first few years were spent in a crowded lab in the Ingalls West building.

“At the beginning of the screening program, there was already a backlog of drugs that had never been tested against cancer,” she recalled. “We had a field day testing everything the government had to send us.”


In 1973, Trader was appointed head of the Experimental Leukemia Section. Her lab conducted work in mouse leukemia that contributed to improved cancer treatments, particularly of acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL.

In those days, ALL spread rapidly and often fatally in children, but because of advances coming from Southern Research and other organizations, survival rates began to rise sharply.

The work performed by Trader’s team contributed to these advances in several ways. For one thing, her lab developed at least 20 lines of drug-resistant leukemias that proved useful in testing drug treatments. These resistant forms of leukemia were utilized in biochemistry and cell culture studies to expose the mechanism of drug resistance.

“We want to know why a drug does not work in a person’s body and what happens to it,” Trader said in 1980.

In addition, extensive testing carried out in Trader’s lab demonstrated the validity of famed Southern Research cancer researcher Dr. Howard Skipper’s theory that just one cancer cell can trigger the fatal disease. Skipper introduced the concept that every single cancer cell must be eliminated to ensure the survival of the patient.

“This added some basic knowledge to understanding the magnitude of the disease of cancer,” Trader recalled.

Her lab also conducted studies on combination chemotherapy that explored how new and existing drugs could be used together or in sequence as an effective treatment regimen for leukemia and many different forms of cancer.

“Everything we have learned — proper scheduling of drugs, problems of drug resistance and demonstration of one cancer cell’s impact — has tied in with increasingly successful treatment of children with leukemia,” Trader said in 1980.


Soon after marking 30 years at Southern Research, Trader died from a heart attack in 1987. She was 64 years old.

Dr. Russell Laster, then head of the institute’s Cancer Screening Division, noted her immense contribution to the organization’s work. “She was like a computer with 30 years of storage and instant recall, and you can’t replace that.”

During her career as an experimental cancer chemotherapist, Trader contributed to at least 30 scientific papers, including several with Skipper and another prominent figure in cancer research, Dr. Frank Schabel. She also presented her leukemia findings at national meetings held by the American Association for Cancer Research and others.