V. Craig Jordan, who discovered a key drug for breast cancer, 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 whole 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 was his caregiver for many years, said the cause was kidney cancer.

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

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

Cancer of all types had long been seen as an invincible enemy, treatable only with blunt, dangerous drugs like chemotherapy. But in the early 1970s, a new wave of research, fueled in part by President Richard M. Nixon’s “war on cancer” campaign, would lead to a revolution in oncology over the next 30 years.

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

Tamoxifen was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1977 for use in late-stage breast cancer, and then in 1999 for use in metastatic breast cancer and as a preventive measure. Tamoxifen was the first in a new class of medications called selective estrogen receptor modulators. It and other medications are now prescribed to women worldwide and are credited with helping millions of patients, including thousands of men, who also develop breast cancer.

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, working with Steven R. Cummings, an expert on aging at the University of California at San Francisco, showed that another estrogen-blocking drug, raloxifene, improved bone density in postmenopausal women and reduced their risk of developing breast cancer by as much as 70 percent.

Dr. Jordan was in many ways an old-fashioned researcher. He insisted that a drug should be studied for all its potential applications, not just those that would make money or get to market the fastest. And he believed that scientists should be transparent about side effects, even if it meant diminishing the 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 American father, Virgil Johnson, met while his father was serving in England during World War II and returned to his home in Texas after the war.

They divorced shortly after Craig was born 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 an average student. The only subject he excelled in was chemistry, a passion his mother encouraged by having him build a lab in his bedroom.

“Experiments often got out of hand, so a steaming concoction was thrown out the window onto the lawn below, setting the curtains on fire,” he wrote in 2014 in the Endocrine Journal. “The lawn, of course, died.”

Given his poor grades, he assumed he would go straight to work after high school, perhaps as a lab technician at a nearby plant of Imperial Chemical Industries (now part of the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca).

But his mother leaned on his teachers to let him study for another year to prepare for university, and he managed to win a scholarship to the University of Leeds. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1969, a Ph.D. in 1973, and a doctorate in science in 1985, all in pharmacology.

He also joined the University Officers’ Training Corps, after which he served in the British Army and Reserves until his compulsory retirement at the age of 55, most of that time with the elite Special Air Service unit, somewhat comparable to the American Navy SEALs.

While studying at Leeds, he began working on tamoxifen, an interest he carried through a series of positions at several institutions: the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts; the University of Wisconsin; Northwestern University; the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia; Georgetown University; and, from 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 finding that he nevertheless spoke openly about, and spent the last years of his life fighting and working through it.

“I’m in a state of flux, but I’m not afraid of dying,” he told The ASCO Post, an oncology journal, in 2022. “I was the person most likely to never see the age of 30, given the stupid things I did in my youth.”

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