Cancer is relentless, so perseverance is essential in those who hope to vanquish it. Alan C. Sartorelli, Ph.D., is anything but a quitter. This October marks Sartorelli’s 50th year on the Yale faculty, a half century in which he has continuously held multiple research grants in a hunt for new and better cancer treatments. On a recent afternoon it was business as usual: Sartorelli, who will be 80 years old in December, was applying final polish to a grant application bound for the National Institutes of Health.
The same tenaciousness has served Sartorelli well in his personal life. Born in hardscrabble Chelsea, Mass., across the Mystic River from Boston (and with the accent to prove it), Sartorelli took a restaurant job at age 12 and kept it all the way through his undergraduate years at the now-defunct New England College of Pharmacy, “about all I could afford at the time.” He was a class officer during each of his four college years, and on nights and weekends eked out a living singing popular music at events around Boston. Even the indefatigable Sartorelli, now Alfred Gilman Professor of Pharmacology, scratches his head at how he got it all done, but says, “That’s my way of functioning. I always do more than I think I can do. I try, at any rate.”
Sartorelli obtained a laboratory assistantship at Middlebury College, in Vermont, where he earned a master’s degree in chemistry. He received a Ph.D. in Biochemical Oncology from the University of Wisconsin, and after a quirky three-year stint at a small cancer research foundation in Ardmore, Okla., he came to the School of Medicine in 1961.
As an assistant professor, “I didn’t date very much. I just worked,” says Sartorelli. But he did find time to develop an infatuation with the woman who would become his wife, the “gorgeous outside, but also inside” Alice Anderson, then registrar of the medical school.
Though she had declined a request for a date, Sartorelli’s patience paid off one afternoon as he waited beneath the portico of Sterling Hall of Medicine for a rainstorm to taper off. “She came out with an umbrella, headed in the same direction, and she invited me under.” It was a small umbrella, though, and water flowed off of it into his coat collar, pouring out the end of his pant leg “just like a drainpipe,” Sartorelli recalls. “But I didn’t care.”
That waterlogged encounter led to a loving marriage that endured for 41 years, until Alice died in March, 2011.
Though he doesn’t remember exactly why, “I knew I wanted to be a cancer researcher since I was six years of age,” just about the time he got his first chemistry set, Sartorelli says.
That singular focus eventually brought him to the pinnacle of the profession. Sartorelli’s CV needs many pages to embrace all the research papers and book chapters published, editorships and presidencies held, lectures given, and honors won. But, for him, no achievement matches his nine-year term as director of Yale Cancer Center. “I loved that job,” he says. “It’s exactly what I wanted to do.”
Despite the disappointment of the FDA denying approval in 2009 at the Phase II stage to laromustine, a promising anti-cancer compound developed in his lab, Sartorelli has characteristically kept on. Members of his lab are now pinning their hopes on hypoxic cells, oxygen-deprived cells distinctive to tumors that Sartorelli believes are “a source of vulnerability for cancers.” Because of hypoxic cells’ metabolic anomalies, it is possible, he says, to create an inert “prodrug” specifically designed to home in on these cells that will transform into a potent cancer-killer once it enters them. This Trojan horse strategy would spare normal tissue while delivering a killer blow to tumors on their own turf.
Asked about his hopes for the success of this latest venture, Sartorelli replies simply, “I think we’re gonna do it.” Then he gets back to work on the grant application.