Internationally renowned pharmacologist Paul Talalay, MD, died on March 10, 2019, in Baltimore, Maryland, at the age of 95. Talalay was known for the study of cancer-preventive compounds in food, particularly glucoraphanin and sulforaphane from broccoli (Brassica oleracea, Brassicaceae) crowns and sprouts.
Talalay was born on March 31, 1923, in Berlin, Germany. Previously, his Russian-Jewish parents fled Russia following the revolution of 1917. In 1933, after Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, Talalay’s parents again faced the rise of anti-Semitism and obtained, at extraordinary cost, illicitly issued Haitian passports for the family. Talalay and his family left Berlin on his 10th birthday and traveled through Belgium before settling in England. Talalay received his primary education at Bedford School in Bedford, England, where he learned to speak English and developed a love of science.
The threat of war in 1940 once again prompted the family to move. Despite missives from the German government warning of German Jews carrying Haitian passports, the Haitian consulate in England renewed their passports, and the Talalay family embarked on a 10-day journey on the SS Samaria across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. Since German submarines patrolled the waters, the passengers on the Samaria lived in “blackout” conditions and were forbidden to go on deck after dark or have any source of light. Ships traveled in convoys for protection in numbers, and one of the ships in their convoy was sunk by a German torpedo.
After the Talalay family settled in New York City, New York, Paul Talalay attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biophysics in 1944. From 1944 to 1946, he attended the University of Chicago medical school, where he conducted research under Charles Huggins, MD. Huggins’ research on how hormone treatment could alter the course of metastatic prostate cancer changed the way scientists viewed the development and treatment of cancer and eventually earned him the 1966 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Under Huggins’ supervision, Talalay also learned to view cancer treatment and prevention in a different light, and the experience influenced his course of study. After two years, he left Chicago to complete his degree at the Yale School of Medicine at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He earned his MD in 1948.
After completing surgical training as a house officer at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Talalay returned to Huggins at the University of Chicago in 1950 as an American Cancer Society-Damon Runyon Fund Postdoctoral Fellow to study steroid hormones and their effects on prostate cancer. Later that same year, he was promoted to assistant professor, and then to professor of biochemistry and medicine at the Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research at the university. In 1952, he took a brief sabbatical to Cambridge, England, where he met his wife Pamela, who was studying for her PhD in biochemistry.
Talalay remained at the University of Chicago until 1963, when he moved to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore as chairman of the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. In this position, he founded one of the first Medical Scientist Training (MD-PhD) Programs in the country, recruited and nurtured many outstanding faculty members and students, and guided the school of medicine’s overall academic program. Colleagues referred to his tenure from 1963 to 1975 as “legendary.”1
In 1973, Talalay received a Guggenheim Fellowship and returned to England. The experience of working in a laboratory full-time prompted him to resign his directorship of the department and pursue scientific study of his own interests. Upon his return from England, Johns Hopkins University named him the John Jacob Abel Distinguished Service Professor of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, a title he held until his death. Talalay’s research on “chemoprotection” was, at the time, counter to prevailing medical opinion, which maintained that cancer could not be prevented. Nevertheless, he changed direction from cancer treatment to cancer prevention, and his focus turned to phytochemicals in plants. Talalay not only believed cancer could be prevented, but he preferred the active term “protection.”
After spending more than a decade developing a precise, quantitative laboratory assay capable of rapidly and reliably measuring enzyme protective activity, Talalay’s research team saw a breakthrough with the identification and isolation of sulforaphane present in broccoli, which appeared to interact with proteins in cells that prevented the spread of cancer. Studies using animal models subsequently confirmed these findings, and Talalay and his colleagues published their research in 1992.2 Following this discovery, he founded the Brassica Chemoprotection Laboratory, now known as the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Chemoprotection Center, at Johns Hopkins. The center soon expanded its focus from broccoli and took an interdisciplinary approach to investigating the preventive properties of other substances, such as honey and moringa (Moringa oleifera, Moringaceae), for a broad look at chronic conditions in addition to cancer. With colleagues around the world, they extensively studied the biochemical cellular pathways to understand the natural processes of cell protection.
In 1997, Talalay; his colleague Jed Fahey, ScD, from Johns Hopkins; and his son Tony Talalay founded Brassica Protection Products under a licensure agreement from Johns Hopkins. The company formulates products using broccoli seeds and sprouts, which were found to contain much higher concentrations of the precursor of sulforaphane than mature broccoli crowns, and released its first nutritional supplement and food ingredient, SGS™ (later rebranded as TrueBroc®), in 2001. Brassica Protection Products received the American Botanical Council’s 2016 Varro E. Tyler Commercial Investment in Phytomedicinal Research Award for the company’s research on and promotion of the benefits of broccoli, which also include actions against Helicobacter pylori bacteria and elimination of airborne pollutants from the body.
Despite his focus on broccoli and its constituents, Talalay often cautioned against pinning all one’s hopes on a single compound. “We try to avoid hype,” he was quoted as saying.3 “A diet of mostly plant-based foods, in moderation, is the best protection you can obtain.”
In addition to his long career in the laboratory, Talalay served as an associate editor of The Journal of Biological Chemistry from 1962 to 1966. He also earned one of the first lifetime professorships of the American Cancer Society, which helped fund his research. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In addition, the MD-PhD student library at the Johns Hopkins school of medicine bears his name, as does an award given by the university to PhD candidates as a part of Young Investigators’ Day, an initiative he also founded.
In his personal life, Talalay was perhaps most proud of his walk-on roles in several films by Baltimore legend John Waters, including an appearance as a man exiting an X-rated film theater in the 1981 film “Polyester.” His students also delighted in their professor’s screen “career.” Paul Talalay is survived by his wife Pamela, children Tony, Susan, Rachel, and Sarah, four grandchildren, and many beloved nieces and nephews.
- Anft M. A Nibble of Prevention. Johns Hopkins Magazine. April 2008. Available at: http://pages.jh.edu/~jhumag/0408web/talalay.html. Accessed April 18, 2019.
- Zhang Y, Talalay P, Cho CG, Posner GH. A major inducer of anticarcinogenic protective enzymes from broccoli: isolation and elucidation of structure. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 1992;89(6):2399-2403.
- Paul Talalay and Jed Fahey. Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences website. Available at: www.hopkinsmedicine.org/institute_basic_biomedical_sciences/about_us/scientists/Talalay_Fahey.html. Accessed April 18, 2019.