Endre Alexander Balazs, M.D., scientist, innovator, and entrepreneur, whose 70 years of pioneering research on the structure and biological activity of hyaluronan (hyaluronic acid) led to discoveries on extracting and purifying the molecule itself so that it could be used therapeutically, died Saturday, August 29, 2015 in St. Tropez, France. He was 95 years old.
As the world’s leading expert on this important macromolecule, a viscoelastic glycosaminoglycan present in all tissues of the human body, it was his vision of how it could be used and his specific contributions that led to medical products that have benefitted millions of patients worldwide. In the 1970s he patented the “Non-Inflammatory Fraction of Hyaluronan” to be used therapeutically. The first of the therapeutic products, Healon®, made intraocular surgeries for cataracts and subsequent intraocular lens replacement almost routine, and was also the first viscosupplementation product for the alleviation of pain and improvement of mobility in arthritis. To this day Healon and other products he developed, such as Synvisc® for viscosupplementation in osteoarthritis, remain the most utilized products in their fields. Worldwide, these products have facilitated eye surgeries in more than 250 million patients, and more than 50 million patients crippled by osteoarthritis of the knee are now able to walk and live more comfortably and productively.
Dr. Balazs, born in Budapest, Hungary, received his medical degree from the University of Budapest in 1942. He launched his research career at the Department of Histology and Embryology of the University. In 1947 he continued his research at the Department of Experimental Histology of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. In 1951, at the invitation of Harvard Medical School, he moved to Boston to organize the Retina Foundation and set up research laboratories there, and later became its President. He was co-founder of the Boston Biomedical Research Institute where he worked from 1968-1975. Dr. Balazs moved to New York and continued his research and teaching at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center as the Malcolm P. Aldrich Research Professor and Director of Research in the Department of Ophthalmology at the Harkness Eye Institute. Upon his retirement in 1987, he became the Malcolm P. Aldrich Research Professor Emeritus.
In 1968, Dr. Balazs founded Biotrics, Inc., to develop methods to produce and apply hyaluronan for medical purposes. In 1981, he co-founded Biomatrix, Inc. with his wife, Dr. Janet L. Denlinger. As the company's Chief Executive Officer and Chief Science Officer, Dr. Balazs established a strong research and development program that focused on modifying hyaluronan, work that led to important therapeutic applications, including a new viscosupplement for arthritic joints (Synvisc®); Hylaform® and the concept of viscoaugmentation of dermal tissue for the treatment of facial wrinkles and depressed scars; and Hylashield® to be used on the surface of the eye to alleviate pain and irritation. After a public offering of stock in 1991, Biomatrix was listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange. Its subsequent financial success allowed Biomatrix to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange in July of 1998. In 1999 Biomatrix was recognized by Fortune magazine as one of America’s 100 Fastest- Growing companies. After Biomatrix was sold to Genzyme Corp. in 2000, Dr. Balazs continued his research and development work on hyaluronan at the Matrix Biology Institute that he and Dr. Denlinger founded as a charitable medical research institute.
At his initiative in 1962 the first international eye research journal, Experimental Eye Research, was founded with him serving as Editor-in-Chief until 1991. He also initiated and co-founded the International Society for Eye Research (ISER; 1974) and was its General Secretary and later its President. In 1986, the International Society for Eye Research established the Endre A. Balazs Prize and named him Honorary President of the Society. More recently (2004), he founded the International Society for Hyaluronan Sciences (ISHAS).
Dr. Balazs received many honors for his research/development and business accomplishments. He was a recipient of the Friedenwald Award from the Association for Research in Ophthalmology (1963); Guggenheim Fellow (1968) and Macy Foundation Scholar in 1991; the Cornelius D. Binkhorst Medal from The American Academy of Ophthalmology (1986); recognized by the American Arthritis Foundation as Humanitarian of the Year (1998); Herman F. Mark Technology Medal from the Polymer Research Institute of Polytechnic University, Brooklyn, NY (2003); Ellis Island Medal of Honor, NY (2004); In 2005 he was awarded the George Washington Award of the American Hungarian Foundation, which honors persons whose eminent contributions are in the broad field of human knowledge, the arts, commerce, industry, the sciences, and understanding men among men and nations; Distinguished Alumni Award from the Schepens Eye Research Institute (2008); induction into the Ophthalmology Hall of Fame by the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery (2009); He became an external member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in the Section of Chemistry in 2010; received the Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research (2011); and in 2012, the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame recognized him for “Lifetime patent and technology achievement related to eye and orthopedic research and groundbreaking discoveries in utilizing hyaluronan for therapeutic purposes”. Just this year he was honored with a named chair, The Endre A. Balazs Professorship in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. He was also awarded several honorary degrees: 1967: in Medicine, from the University of Uppsala, Uppsala, Sweden; 1991: in Medicine, from Semmelweis University for Science and Medicine, Budapest, Hungary; 2005: in Science, from Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana; 2009: of Humane Letters, from Saint Leo University, Saint Leo, Florida.
Author of over 300 publications in the fields of biochemistry, physicochemistry, rheology, pharmacology, biology and pathology and on the subjects of hyaluronan and sulfated glycosaminoglycans, radiation chemistry of carbohydrates, joint tissues and synovial fluid, eye tissues, especially the vitreous and cornea, and the medical applications of hyaluronan and hylans. He has received nineteen US and corresponding International patents in these fields.
He is survived by his wife, Janet L. Denlinger of Fort Lee, NJ and St. Tropez, France; his former wife, Eva K. Balazs; two children: Marianne E. Balazs and André T. Balazs; and four grandchildren: Johann W.E. Scheidt and Anna- Elisabeth E. Scheidt, Alessandra Ford Balazs and Isabel Ford Balazs.
Donations in Dr. Balazs’ memory may be made to the Endre A. Balazs Foundation. This will help to continue his legacy of support for scientific innovation and therapeutic applications of hyaluronan products for the benefit of all mankind.
Endre A. Balazs Foundation
c/o 9 Shore Road
Edgewater, NJ 07020