American medicine lost a giant this week.
His passing, though, reminds us that no matter how great the medical challenge — cancer, heart disease, diabetes, polio, neurodegenerative diseases, the Spanish flu, or COVID-19, American physicians have a pioneering spirit to save as many lives as possible.
And the American people will continue to be the beneficiaries of that pioneering medical spirit as long as it remains unleashed.
The death this week of Dr. Robert L. Elliott, M.D., Ph.D., of Baton Rouge, Louisiana saddened many.
Perhaps no American physician in recent years has had a greater impact on various fields of medicine than the man his patients affectionately referred to as "Dr. Bob."
He was the youngest member of the surgical team in 1963 that performed the world’s first lung transplant under Dr. James Hardy.
He developed America’s first patented autologous breast cancer vaccine.
The U.S. Navy Cancer Vaccine Program, largely focused on fighting prostate cancer, was based mainly on his work.
His countless scholarships to deserving youth to go into medicine had a profound impact on improving health care in the rural South.
In 2011, America’s National Rural Health Association bestowed upon him its prestigious "National Medical Researcher of the Year Award."
And his pioneering mitochondrial research laid the foundation for treatments of various neurodegenerative diseases and perhaps even future space travel.
Yes, "Dr. Bob" was one of a kind.
He was a southern gentleman who was always comfortable in his trademark seersucker suit whether lecturing at the National Cancer Institute, or at one of Europe’s leading medical research centers. A "doctor’s doctor," he loved his patients and they loved him and he never quit fighting for them, no matter how bleak the diagnosis.
Noted virologist Dr. David Gangemi, professor emeritus at Clemson University and former "Team Lead" of DoD’s Bio-Safety Level 4 facility said it best, "he was the most empathetic physician-scientist that I have ever known."
Many today are beating cancer because of Dr. Elliott’s pioneering work in the field of cancer immunotherapy — the ability to turn on one’s own immune system to fight cancer.
He was one of the first physicians over 50 years ago to take a second look at Dr. William Coley’s work from the turn of the last century, known as "Coley’s Toxins," which is now widely considered the precursor to cancer immunotherapy.
Elliott’s pioneering work, built on Coley’s foundation, not only led to the development of America’s first patented autologous breast cancer vaccine, but also cancer vaccines for colon, lung, esophageal, and melanoma cancers.
He also invented new cancer therapies to get cancer drugs past the "blood-brain barrier."
In recent years, medical researchers at our world’s finest medical institutions have validated the concept of cancer immunotherapy and that Coley and Elliott were right all along.
Today, so many are fighting and beating cancer thanks to immune therapy, including my own father who received a lung cancer vaccine from Dr. Elliott some twelve years ago.
Elliott’s work is known and respected internationally. A number of years ago, he was invited to lecture at Norway’s acclaimed Norwegian Radium Hospital.
That evening, he was invited to a dinner with King Harald V of Norway. After dinner, the King and Dr. Elliott sat down in another room to discuss Dr. Elliott’s medical research.
Dr. Elliott began by saying, "Your majesty, as a little boy growing up in the Mississippi Delta, I could have never imagined I’d be meeting and having dinner with a King. As they say where I come from, I’m in high cotton tonight!"
King Harald, who actually went to grammar school in the U.S. after fleeing the Nazis at an early age, responded, "Dr. Elliott, I know what high cotton is!"
Everyone who heard it cracked up, but the two had hit it off and the discussion about the future of medicine was just getting started.
Dr. Elliott’s ability to inspire others was one of his greatest attributes. Years ago, he and his wife, Dr. Mary Elliott, established the Elliott Scholars Program at their alma mater, Delta State University.
Each year, "Dr. Bob" and "Dr. Mary" brought in leading international physicians and scientists, including Nobel Laureates; they did so to motivate the students to go into medicine.
Even former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion "Smokin’" Joe Frazier, who was a fan of Dr. Elliott’s work, came one year. And many of the women who survived breast cancer thanks to his ground breaking treatments wrote their own recipe book, "Cooking Up a Cure," to help fund cancer research efforts.
Dr. Elliott’s last great medical accomplishment was in the field of repairing mitochondrial dysfunction. Mitochondria are the energy, or "powerhouse" of the cell.
Many years ago, Elliott noticed that mitochondria dysfunction, or damaged mitochondria, was evident in a number of diseases, especially neurodegenerative diseases.
Through his research, he developed a therapy called mitochondria organelle transplantation.
I’m glad he lived to see others validate his concept, and his own peer-reviewed papers published. Specifically, last year, an article in the Journal of the American Heart Association cited his early mitochondria research efforts.
And in the last couple of months, his own peer-reviewed papers on how to repair mitochondria dysfunction were published in Neuroscience and Medicine and the Journal of Biomedical Engineering.
And now, as a result of research on 59 astronauts, NASA says repairing mitochondria dysfunction will be key to the future of space travel.
Just as Dr. Elliott studied and built upon Dr. Coley’s early cancer immunotherapy work, I believe that young, American physician-scientists will study Dr. Elliott’s mitochondria work and the promise it holds for those suffering from such neurodegenerative diseases as ALS, Parkinson’s and alzheimer’s.
And yes, study his work to better enable space travel.
Dr. Elliott was a remarkable man.
He wanted to be a doctor and go into medicine because he wanted to help people.
He did so for all the right reasons.
Not only did he help people and save lives, the doctor who never gave up fighting for his patients left a foundation of medical research that will continue to save lives and benefit humanity in a variety of medical fields for generations to come.
His legacy reminds us of what American medicine can do if the pioneering spirit of our physicians is unleashed, encouraged, and supported.
Van Hipp is Chairman of American Defense International, Inc. He is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Army and author of “The New Terrorism: How to Fight It and Defeat It.” He is the 2018 recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II September 11 Garden Leadership Award for National Security. Read Van Hipp's Reports — More Here.
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