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Stanley Cohen, Nobelist, Dies at 97; Made Breakthrough on Cell Growth

Stanley Cohen, a Brooklyn-born biochemist who shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in medicine for the discovery of chemicals that promote and help regulate the growth of cells — research that greatly advanced science’s understanding of cancer, dementia and other maladies — died on Wednesday in Nashville. He was 97.

Vanderbilt University announced his death, at a retirement community. Dr. Cohen was a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Vanderbilt, in Nashville.

In the 1950s, working at Washington University in St. Louis in the laboratory of Viktor Hamburger, a pioneer in the study of nerve growth, Dr. Cohen was among a small cadre of scientists who sought to unravel the basic mechanisms underlying cell growth, and to crack one of the most baffling medical puzzles of that era: How do developing cells reach out and connect to others, forming neural networks?

A close university colleague, the developmental biologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, discovered the answer: The cells form these networks through the production of a protein known as nerve growth factor, or NGF. It was the first time a biochemical agent that controlled cellular growth had been isolated.

Dr. Cohen identified receptors on the cell surface on which the growth factor acts, explaining how such proteins can change the biology and behavior of individual cells. His efforts brought a clearer understanding of how growth factors stimulate cells to grow, divide and respond to chemical messengers.

His work on NGF led to his own discovery — of epidermal growth factor, or EGF, which has applications in medicine for wound healing, cancer therapy and the growth of transplanted skin in severe burn cases.

Dr. Cohen’s breakthrough with EGF began with mice.

In the laboratory, he injected newborn mice with a chemical extract, containing nerve growth factor, that had been taken from adult mice. Newborn mice ordinarily first open their eyes when they are about two weeks old. But Dr. Cohen saw that after the newborns received the growth factor, they opened their eyes on about the seventh day. Moreover, he found that their teeth had started to come in earlier than normal.

“It was very simple thinking,” he told The New York Times in 1986. “We were speeding up a natural process, and since nature has spent so many millions of years perfecting her processes, it must be of interest to know how we change the normal program.”

He concluded that epidermal growth factor played a central role in the timing of cell development.

“People used to sort of laugh when he started talking about something that caused mice to open their eyes,” Dr. Graham Carpenter, of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, was quoted as saying in the same Times article. “But Stan has always been very focused on what he wanted to know.”

The EGF receptor has since become central to the development of drugs for various forms of cancer. And EGF-like proteins and their receptors have been studied as potential aids to preventing heart failure, slowing the advance of kidney disease and fostering liver regeneration.

“Dr. Cohen’s discovery of the EGF receptor has revolutionized the care and outlook for millions of cancer patients worldwide,” Dr. Jeffrey R. Balser, the president and chief executive of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and dean of the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, was quoted as saying by Vanderbilt News, a campus online publication, after Dr. Cohen’s death.

In awarding Dr. Cohen and Dr. Levi-Montalcini the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the Nobel committee in Stockholm credited their work with opening a window on neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

“The discovery of what are now known as growth factors has provided a deeper understanding of medical problems like deformities, senile dementia, delayed wound healing and tumor diseases,” the committee said.

The two scientists also shared the prestigious Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 1986. That same year, in a White House ceremony, President Ronald Reagan presented Dr. Cohen with the National Medal of Science.

Dr. Cohen was born on Nov. 17, 1922, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father, Louis Cohen, was a tailor, his mother, Fannie (Feitel), a homemaker.

After surviving polio in childhood, Stanley attended James Madison High School in Brooklyn. He majored in both biology and chemistry at Brooklyn College, graduating in 1943.

To earn money for graduate school, he worked for a time as a bacteriologist in a milk processing plant. He then attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where he received a master’s degree in zoology in 1945. He earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1948.

For his thesis, he wrote about the metabolic processes of earthworms. In his autobiography for the Nobel committee, he noted, “I remember spending my nights collecting over 5,000 worms from the university campus green.”

Dr. Cohen taught at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver for four years before moving to Washington University. He began teaching at Vanderbilt in 1959 and earned the title of distinguished professor there in 1986. He retired from Vanderbilt with emeritus status in 1999.

Dr. Cohen’s first marriage, to Olivia Barbara Larson, ended in divorce. Vanderbilt University said he is survived by his second wife, Jan (Jordan) Cohen; three children from his first marriage, Cary Cohen, Bert Bishop and Ken Larson; and two granddaughters.

Dr. Levi-Montalcini, who held dual citizenship in the United States and Italy, died in Rome in 2012 at 103.

After the announcement of the Nobel, the journalist and author James Gleick, then a reporter for The Times, wrote that in addition to spending time in his laboratory, Dr. Cohen could be seen “pacing up and down in the corridor outside, wearing old pants with holes burned in the pockets by his pipe.” At home, Dr. Cohen liked to play the clarinet.

“He comes from a generation when science was personal,” Mr. Gleick quoted a longtime Vanderbilt colleague, Dr. Lloyd E. King Jr., as saying, “and he still has calluses on his fingers.”

But Dr. King acknowledged, Mr. Gleick added, that “at least one of the calluses seemed a consequence of overly steadfast clarinet playing.”

William McDonald contributed reporting.

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