Farewell to Father of BIG: Aron Goldhirsch

Aron Goldhirsch smiling

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Farewell to Prof Aron Goldhirsch (1946 – 2020), Father of the Breast International Group (BIG)

Professor Aron Goldhirsch, the “father” of BIG and a founder of the International Breast Cancer Study Group (IBCSG), passed away at the age of 73 on 26 February 2020. He was much more than a brilliant medical oncologist; he was a truly remarkable person known for his very high sense of ethics, humanity and openness. He will be profoundly missed, not only by his family, friends and patients, but also by the scientific world and his extended BIG family.

Throughout his career, Professor Goldhirsch made significant contributions to breast cancer medicine and education and, besides his many national duties, he worked tirelessly to foster international collaboration and preserve academic independence in cancer research. Over the years, his humanity and openness spirit inspired people with different backgrounds and expertise to join efforts and build a genuine collaboration: “…a multidisciplinary approach across groups and institutions, working together with the spirit of ‘all for one and one for all’, is the most powerful attitude to improve results in breast cancer research”[1]. Much of this work was conducted in the context of his leadership within the International Breast Cancer Study Group, of which he was a founder.

In the early 1990s, while breast cancer research was highly fragmented, with academic groups running many similar trials and consequently duplicating efforts, and wasting time and resources, Professor Goldhirsch, together with Professor Martine Piccart, shared a different vision of the future: groups debating the latest research findings, sharing ideas for new clinical trials and working in harmony to conduct these trials together. He strongly believed that this was the only way forward to make significant advances in breast cancer research and answer pertinent therapeutic questions more rapidly and efficiently. In 1996, Professors Goldhirsch and Piccart created the Breast International Group (BIG) with the aim of bringing together academic research groups. Nearly 20 years later, more than 60 trials have been run under the BIG umbrella, many of them landmark, having a real impact on patients’ lives.  It was Professor Goldhirsch’s idea to call this new network “BIG, despite it being a very small and fragile collaborative network at the start.  According to Professor Martine Piccart, “This was not a random choice: because of Aron’s faith in collegiality, loyalty, friendship, and his passion for “academic freedom”, he knew that this construction would grow and become successful over the years.“

Prof Goldhirsch’s greatest legacy is his vision: provide the best care for each individual patient through collaboration, academically independent research and education.

He was one of the main contributors to the St Gallen International Expert Consensus Conference, which gives practicing oncologists recommendations on how to optimize treatment for patients with early breast cancer.

When asked about the future, Prof Goldhirsch was an optimistic: “Improvement of patient care has been observed in each of the last four decades. There is no reason for this trend to stop! Our current degree of knowledge will increase and, with it, improve practice.”1 Throughout his career, he encouraged new generations of breast cancer experts to work together and to maintain the spirit of academic research, which includes better care for patients and better knowledge for advancing science.

Prof. Goldhirsch has been bestowed with numerous prestigious honours and awards for his work, including the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction (2008), the Umberto Veronesi Award for the Future Fight Against Breast Cancer (2010) and the Gianni Bonadonna ASCO Breast Cancer Award & Lecture (2014).

But his impact extends well beyond these prizes and the over 700 peer-reviewed articles he authored. Prof Goldhirsch’s greatest legacy is his vision: provide the best care for each individual patient through collaboration, academically independent research and education.

He will continue to live and inspire future generations of cancer scientists, and everyone else who had the privilege to know him.

[1] Interview with BIG HQ, BIG Research in Focus vol.7, September 2017

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Professor Aron Goldhirsch, breast cancer expert and founder of BIG

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