Teresa J. Vietti, M.D., a pediatric oncologist who earned the nickname “the mother of pediatric cancer therapy,” died Monday, Jan. 25, 2010, of natural causes in St. Louis. She was 82.
Vietti, professor emeritus of pediatrics and of radiology, was an internationally renowned pioneer of pediatric cancer research and treatment for more than 40 years. She conceived the concept of multi-institution pediatric cooperative groups and founded the Pediatric Oncology Group (POG), now known as the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), which she chaired for its first 15 years. Under her leadership, POG grew to more than 100 institutions and 1,500 investigators. Today, COG has more than 200 institutions and more than 5,000 investigators. The success and growth of POG and COG is the impetus behind the participation of more than 60 percent of pediatric cancer patients in clinical trials worldwide.
Vietti’s basic science studies of the mechanisms of action of chemotherapy drugs and their development as key components to multi-agent therapy in childhood cancer paved the way for the remarkable increase in survival in childhood cancer from less than 15 percent to about 80 percent over the past four decades. She designed and directed more than 200 clinical trials in the treatment of childhood cancer and published more than 200 research articles in the most prestigious scientific journals.
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1927, Vietti and her twin sister, Eleanor Ardel, became interested in science and medicine as very young girls. Vietti bought her first microscope at age 9, entered Rice University at age 17, and then earned a medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston in 1953. She arrived at St. Louis Children’s Hospital that same year for an internship and residency in pediatrics.
After further training in hematology, Vietti returned to Washington University School of Medicine in 1961 as assistant professor of pediatrics, becoming full professor in 1972. She became chief of the pediatric hematology/oncology division in 1970 and remained in that role until 1986.
“Teresa Vietti’s compassion and dedication as a clinician, combined with her determined focus on scientific discovery, made her an outstanding member of the School of Medicine faculty and of the medical field,” said Larry J. Shapiro, M.D., executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “A generation of pediatric hematologists and oncologists today have her to thank for the advances in the field over the last 40 years.”
Throughout her career, Vietti played a critical role in the training of dozens of pediatric hematologists/oncologists while also focusing her clinical work and research on soft tissue and bone sarcoma and acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Her scientific accomplishments included the genetic basis of leukemia, the pharmacology of new chemotherapy agents and the long-term effects of chemotherapy in survivors of childhood cancer.
“Hundreds of thousands of children with cancer and their families worldwide have experienced life when none would have been possible were it not for Teresa Vietti,” said Alan L. Schwartz, Ph.D., M.D., the Harriet B. Spoehrer Professor of Pediatrics, chair of the Department of Pediatrics and St. Louis Children’s Hospital pediatrician-in-chief.
“Teresa Vietti was a dedicated teacher, compassionate physician, a most generous person, indeed self-effacing, and a model colleague,” Schwartz said. “At a time when care for children with cancer was only compassionate, Teresa Vietti almost single-handedly developed the approach of laboratory-based studies, translational research and clinical trials. She was truly the mother of multimodality cancer treatment.”
She also was the co-author of the book “Clinical Pediatric Oncology,” which has been one of the premier texts in its field through its four editions.
In 1994, Vietti was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Society for Pediatric Hematology/Oncology. In September 1996, her photograph was featured on the cover of Cancer Research, the leading scientific oncology journal, in tribute to her more than 40 years of pioneering studies. Among many other awards, in 2007, she received the Second Century Award of Washington University School of Medicine.
Vietti had no immediate family or survivors.
A memorial service for Vietti will be held in the spring. Memorial contributions may be made to Washington University School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, c/o Alan L. Schwartz, Ph.D., M.D., 660 South Euclid Ave., Campus Box 8116, St. Louis, MO 63110.