Stanley Cohen MD, winner of a 2018 Golden Goose Award, keeps a fortune cookie whose message he says sums up an approach that has guided him in his scientific career: "Do not seek so much to find the answer as to understand the question better."
Says Cohen, emeritus professor of pathology and the founding director of the Center for Biophysical Pathology at Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School (RNJMS) in Newark, "If you insist on trying to find the answer, you're going to be stuck with what you already know."
Cohen, an experimental pathologist, began working in immunology during his medical residency at Harvard. His own curiosity about the big questions in that field led him to uncover a key molecular component of our bodies' most complex activities.
In 1974, Cohen discovered proteins he called cytokines, which cells secrete to communicate with other cells. In a recent interview, Cohen called cytokines "the vocabulary of the language cells use to talk with one another." At the time, his discovery was a leap forward in our understanding of how the body coordinates such complicated projects as mounting a defense against disease, the context in which he identified cytokines.
Other investigators had earlier discovered that the introduction of an antigen could activate lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, to behave in a defensive way even in an infection where no antibodies were present, such as tuberculosis. Cohen had been among the researchers who confirmed these findings, detecting in his own experiments both the presence and activity of lymphokines, the name given to the protein lymphocytes were producing in a type of cell-mediated immunity.
Cohen wondered if a virus might also trigger a cell-mediated immune response, and infected a number of fertilized chickens' eggs to obtain the virus. The subsequent experiment did not produce the results he'd hoped for, and Cohen was on the verge of throwing out the infected eggs when it occurred to him that the virus might have had some interesting effects on the eggs themselves. What he found then was the virus had induced the cells in the fertilized eggs to make substances that were similar, if not identical to the lymphocyte-derived lymphokines that he and others had been studying. This was surprising, since the eggs do not contain any lymphocytes or other immune cells. He called these substances cytokines, and hypothesized that any cell can make them, given the right triggers. His subsequent findings confirmed this hypothesis.
Now we know that cytokines operate not only in immune responses but also in other activities that require collaboration among cells, like growth, development and even homeostasis. Cytokine research is a hugely promising aspect of molecular biology, with hundreds of therapies already on the market or in development. At the time of Cohen's discovery, though, the notion was so revolutionary that the first paper he wrote on the topic was rejected by a number of publications.
Cohen continued to do innovative research; he has taught and served in administration at several institutions. He told an interviewer from the journal Cytokine in 2004 that he was proud to have been part of the cadre of young scientists who initiated the "study of one of the major hormonal integrative pathways of the body." His awards include an Outstanding Investigator Award from the National Institutes of Health in1986, and the American Society of Investigative Pathology's lifetime achievement award in 2015. Cohen is presently an adjunct professor of pathology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, and at the Kimmel School of Medicine at Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
He has retired more than once. "Basically, I had no retirement skills," he said. "The whole field called artificial intelligence has become my retirement passion, except I'm not retired, because I'm doing more and more. The way science is done now, every experiment has so much information that comes out of it that human beings can't process it all. You need computers to help."
Cohen grew up in Brooklyn and attended Columbia University both for college and medical school. He was interested in research from the outset, because he wanted to do something "that would have an effect on the real world," he said, and he reasoned that medicine would be a good backup in case the research fell through.
Cohen's pathology residency was at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where he worked with Harvard University immunologist Byron Waksman MD. In a fellowship at New York University Medical Center, he studied with Baruj Benacerraf, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on immunogenetics, and Robert McCluskey, a pioneer in research on inflammation.
Cohen joined the army during the Vietnam War, attained the rank of captain, and got his first civilian job at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he began the work that led to his discovery of cytokines.
The Golden Goose Award recognizes the work of researchers who have done federally funded work that may have looked commonplace at first blush, but eventually led to major breakthroughs. Founded in 2012 by a number of organizations, including the AAAS, the Golden Goose Awards have been sponsored by the AAAS since 2017.
Cohen said, "It's an honor. It's tremendously important that Congress, the President, everyone understands that basic research is very, very important, but more than that, you don't know where the next useful discoveries are going to come from."