16 Nov An Argentine biotechman in Wisconsin
Wisconsin recently saw the sudden death of another star. In this case, he was a world-renowned scientist for which Wisconsin was also not his birthplace. Unfortunately, few were around to sing his deserving praise.
I only became aware in the last few weeks of the sudden death of biotech scientist Benjamin Frydman, who passed away due to a heart attack in September of this year. An Argentine by birth, Frydman was a founder of Wisconsin biotech company SLIL Biomedical Corp., which was founded in Madison, Wis. to develop new treatments to fight cancer.
SLIL was a leader in the development of novel polyamine analogs as anti-cancer agents. In 2001, pharmaceutical and biotech company PPD invested $2.4 million in SLIL. It appears that SLIL was successful in raising additional investment from various Wisconsin investors as well as substantial NIH funding to aid the development of several of its cancer drugs (some of which had entered human clinical trials).
Frydman was the discoverer of these drugs during his time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Known to his American friends as “Ben,” Frydman was born in Argentina on Sept. 24, 1935. He was the son of two recently arrived Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He was schooled in Yiddish, Hebrew, history, paleontology science and the Talmud. At the time of his death this past September and after many years of rich affiliation with international academia, he would have been 69 years old.
He completed his undergraduate and doctorate in chemistry at the University of Buenos Aires. He married his first wife, Rosalie, in 1961. They left for California for a brief period where he completed a post-doctorate fellowship (also in chemistry) at the University of California at Berkeley.
A Fullbright fellowship at the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago in 1978 to 1979 first brought him to the Midwest. He also was a research fellow at the world-renowned Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel in 1989.
From 1963 to 1985, his main base of activity was in Buenos Aires, Argentina where he started as assistant professor of the Department of Pharmacology in the School of Pharmacy and Biochemistry at the University of Buenos Aires. He became associate professor of plant biochemistry at the same university.
He finally became professor of phytochemistry and professor and chairman of the Department of Organic Chemistry. In 1983 with the return of democracy to Argentina, he became the director of Argentina’s National Research Council, which is the leading scientific organization in that country.
Frydman shifted gears and reinvented himself after these 22 years in Argentina and did several visiting professorships abroad, which broadened his scientific thinking process:
1) 1987: Hadassah Medical School, Hebrew University (Department of Molecular Biology)
2) 1988: Ecole Paul Sabatier, University of Toulouse, France
3) 1988: Tokyo Institute of Technology, Tsukuba University and Nagoya University, Japan
4) 1990: San Francisco Medical School, University of California
5) 1992: University of Freiburg, Switzerland
After the death of his wife in the early 1990s due to metastatic cancer (perhaps this was a strong incentive for his later work at discovering new cancer agents at SLIL) and the fact that his two children, Judith (a professor of biology at Stanford University) and Lucio (also a scientist), were living in the U.S., this tremendously versatile man once again came back to the Midwest in 1993.
He reinvented himself again as a Midwesterner by arriving at the University of Illinois as a research professor in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry and the Department of Pharmacognosy.
In 1994, he moved further north to Madison, Wis. as a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Pharmacy and Medical School. This three-year stint in the cradle of Midwest biotechnology led him to reinvent himself again at the age of 61 to take the plunge into SLIL.
He co-founded SLIL and was vice president and director of drug discovery up until the time of his death. He remarried in 1996 to longtime friend, colleague and collaborator Aldonia (“Lucy”) Valasinas from Buenos Aires. She also was a scientist at SLIL and together they lived in a Madison suburb until his death.
Frydman was the inventor or co-inventor of 15 U.S. patents and was a prolific author or co-author with more than 154 scientific publications in many major scientific journals. In addition to being a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, he was a member of:
1) American Chemical Society
2) International Society of Magnetic Resonance
3) Argentine Society of Biology
4) Argentine Society for Biochemical Research
5) Argentine Society for Research in Organic Chemistry
6) Argentine Society for the Progress of Sciences
He was also the recipient of numerous grants from the NIH and other institutions around the world. In 1998, he won the Wisconsin Small Business Innovation Award for outstanding achievements. Frydman was a frequent lecturer at international scientific events and a mentor to many scientists. He was dissertation director to 19 people with their doctorates.
While it’s difficult to list all his achievements in this column, this brilliant man was at the same time warm and deeply spiritual. At the time of his death, he was well into writing a book about the history of Judaism. Argentina has the largest Jewish population in Latin America and Frydman carried his religion with him throughout his travels and his life.
When I met him earlier this year in downtown Chicago via some mutual friends, we immediately hit it off as we conversed easily (mostly in Spanish). That initial meeting was followed up by several meetings in Milwaukee (a halfway point from Madison) for Sunday brunch and Madison and many weekly phone calls.
At the time, SLIL was at a critical juncture and he was trying to sustain his Madison-based R&D group and facility while senior management moved to California.
Our far-ranging discussions dwelled on many topics and I learned of his book in process, his devotion to Israel (where his son was now living) and of course of his profound interest in getting cancer drugs to the marketplace to help mankind. His spirituality had a profound effect on me at a time when I was in search of my own spirituality.
Though we were separated by a generation and two different cultures, we became fast and good friends. I miss this warm-embracing Argentine and his joie de vie. I’m amazed at the impact he had on me considering the short period we knew each other.
More important, Wisconsin and the Midwest have lost a great scientific mind!
Michael S. Rosen is president and CEO of Barbeau Pharma and a founder and board member of the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization (IBIO). He can be reached at email@example.com. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters. They can be found at www.eprairie.com.
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