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Remembering Gene Goldwasser: Discoverer Of EPO, A Cure For Anemia In Dialysis Patients

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Gene Goldwasser died last week. He was 88, and he was my friend.

I wrote previously about a series of conversations I conducted with Gene and Rabbi A.J. Wolf a few years ago. I met Gene one spring day after calling to invite him to sit in on a class I was teaching to a small group of medical students about social issues in healthcare.

I’d read about him in a book called “The $800 Million Pill,” by Merrill Goozner. In the book, Goozner writes the story of Gene’s two-decade hunt to isolate the hormone erythropoietin (EPO).

Part of the story relates how Gene tried to interest traditional big pharma companies in his discovery, only to be brushed aside. Instead, Gene wound up sharing his discovery with what became Amgen. The company went on to make a windfall from recombinant production of the hormone and licensing it as a drug for patients with anemia and kidney failure.

A molecular model of EPO. (photo from Wikipedia)

Gene never profited from his discovery, the way that scientists and inventors now clamor to patent everything in sight. He believed that his discovery should be shared with the public — after all, the government had funded his research career. He figured the taxpayers ought to get the benefit of his discovery.

Gene was old-fashioned that way. He was also old-fashioned in the way his interests outside of work were so protean. He was a fiend for culture, attending concerts and plays on an almost nightly basis until his health no longer permitted him to.

He told me of his great love for sailing, for travel, for reading. He even was a biographer, penning the story of his great mentor at the University of Chicago, Leon O. “Jake” Jacobson, M.D.

Gene fought prostate cancer for more than 20 years. He vastly outlived his life expectancy given the stage of the disease, and when it recurred this past summer he was grateful for the second life he’d been given.

The cancer eventually caused his kidneys to fail, and rather than decide to start undergoing dialysis treatments, Gene and his wife Deone elected hospice and comfort care to cure. He spent his final days in their beautiful apartment, literally entertaining family and friends and saying his goodbyes.

After 10 days at home, Gene drifted into a gentle coma, and died within two days, surrounded by his family. He chose a good death.

Shortly before he died, Gene completed work on his own memoir. I can’t wait to read it.

This post by John H. Schumann, FACP, originally appeared at GlassHospital. Dr. Schumann is a general internist in Chicago’s south side, and an educator at the University of Chicago, where he trains residents and medical students in both internal medicine and medical ethics. He is also faculty co-chair of the university’s human rights program. His blog, GlassHospital, provides transparency on the workings of medical practice and the complexities of hospital care, illuminates the emotional and cognitive aspects of caregiving and decision-making from the perspective of an active primary care physician, and offers behind-the-scenes portraits of hospital sanctums and the people that inhabit them.

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*


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