V. Craig Jordan, Who Discovered Key Breast Cancer Drug, Dies at 76

V. Craig Jordan, a pharmacologist whose discovery that a failed contraceptive, tamoxifen, could block the growth of breast cancer cells opened a new class of drugs and helped save the lives of millions of women, died June 9 at his home in Houston. He was 76.

Balkees Abderrahman, a researcher who worked closely with Dr. Jordan and cared for him for several years, said the cause was kidney cancer.

Dr. Jordan was known as a meticulous, even obsessive, researcher, a quality demonstrated in his work on tamoxifen. The drug was first synthesized in 1962, although it was discarded because it failed not only to prevent conception but, in some cases, to promote it.

But Dr. Jordan, then a doctoral student at the University of Leeds in Britain, saw something no one else had. It had long been known that estrogen promoted the growth of breast cancer in postmenopausal women, and he suspected that tamoxifen might help stop it.

Cancer of all types had long been considered an invincible foe, curable only by blunt and dangerous tools like chemotherapy. But the early 1970s saw a new wave of research, fueled in part by President Richard M. Nixon's “war on cancer” campaign, that would lead to a revolution in oncology over the next 30 years.

Dr. Jordan was a leader in that revolution. Over decades of research, he was able to demonstrate that tamoxifen, when given to patients with early breast cancer, stopped the tumor from growing by blocking its estrogen receptors. It was, in his words, “anti-estrogen.”

First approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1977 for use in advanced breast cancer, and then in 1999 for use in metastatic breast cancer and as a preventative measure, tamoxifen was the first in a new class of drugs called selective estrogen receptor modulators. It and other drugs are now prescribed to women around the world and are credited with helping millions of patients.

Tamoxifen isn’t perfect. It works in 65 to 80 percent of postmenopausal patients and only 45 to 60 percent of premenopausal patients. And Dr. Jordan was the first to reveal that it led to a small increase in the risk of one type of uterine cancer, though he argued that the benefits for breast cancer patients were still overwhelming.

In 1998, Dr. Jordan, in collaboration with Steven R. Cummings, an expert on aging at the University of California, San Francisco, showed that another estrogen-blocking drug, raloxifene, improved bone density in postmenopausal women and reduced the risk of developing breast cancer by up to 70 percent.

Dr. Jordan was in many ways an old-school researcher. He insisted that a drug should be studied for all its potential applications, not just the ones that would make money or be quickest to market. And he believed that scientists should be transparent about side effects, even if that meant reducing a drug’s appeal. He called his work “conversations with nature.”

Virgil Craig Jordan was born on July 25, 1947, in New Braunfels, Texas. His British mother, Cynthia Mottram, and his American father, Virgil Johnson, met while his father was serving in England during World War II and returned home to Texas after the war.

They divorced soon after Craig's birth, and he and his mother moved to her home in Bramhall, near Manchester, where he grew up. She later married Geoffrey Jordan, who adopted Craig as his son.

By his own account, Craig was a mediocre student. The only subject he excelled in was chemistry, a passion his mother had fostered by letting him build a laboratory in his bedroom.

“The experiments often got out of hand, so a smoking potion was thrown out the window onto the lawn below, leaving the curtains ablaze,” he wrote in the Endocrine Journal in 2014. “Of course, the lawn died.”

Given his poor grades, he thought he would drop out of high school and immediately enter the world of work, perhaps as a lab technician at a nearby plant run by Imperial Chemical Industries (now part of the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca).

But his mother appealed to his teachers to give him another year of study to prepare for college, and he managed to win a scholarship to the University of Leeds. He received a BA in 1969, a PhD in 1973, and a Doctor of Science in 1985, all in pharmacology.

He also joined the University Officers' Training Corps, after which he served in the British Army and its reserves until compulsory retirement at 55, most of that time with the elite Special Air Service, a rough equivalent of the US Navy SEALs.

While at Leeds, he began working on tamoxifen, an interest he pursued through a series of positions at several institutions: the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts; the University of Wisconsin; Northwestern University; Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia; Georgetown University; and, since 2014, the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas at Houston.

Dr. Jordan's three marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by two daughters from his first marriage, Alexandra Noel and Helen Turner, and five grandchildren.

In 2018, he was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer, a shocking outcome that he spoke openly about and fought and worked against in the last years of his life.

“I’m in a state of flow, but I’m not afraid of dying,” she told the ASCO Post, an oncology publication, in 2022. “I was the person most likely to never make it to 30, with all the stupid things I did in my youth.”

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