Going Where Science Leads, continued

As an institute, Wistar has been able to evolve with the science from the beginning. The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology—as it was formerly known—was founded in 1892 by Civil War general Isaac J. Wistar, a successful lawyer, businessman and cultural leader, to house a medical museum begun years earlier by his great uncle, Dr. Caspar Wistar, who chaired the department of anatomy at the University’s School of Medicine. The younger Wistar funded the construction of the four-story Victorian building that housed the collection and established an endowment in exchange for the University’s commitment to provide a plot of land bounded by Spruce Street, 36th Street and Woodland Avenue. In addition to housing a museum, the new institute, he declared, would be free to initiate “any other work for the increase of original scientific knowledge.”
    By the early 1900s Wistar’s third director declared the institute the nation’s “clearing house of anatomy.” Isaac Wistar quickly clarified the purpose of the museum—which included anatomic and embryologic anomalies, such as the skeletons of conjoined twins and the skeleton of a baby with only one eye orbit, as well as the brains of its founder and other famous scientists—as “for the use and study of investigators; rather than a mere gaping public.” Soon Penn graduate students, as well as scientists from all over the world, would train in Wistar’s laboratories and use museum specimens in their studies. The institute began to publish several international medical journals and, by 1925, was the epicenter of American biology. Its museum was no longer the focal point, and eventually the specimens began to collect dust. Legend has it that in the 1950s, Wistar’s museum was named to Philadelphia magazine’s list of best places to meet for an illicit love affair, because of its low foot traffic. (Much of the original collection is now on permanent loan to other museums; the remaining specimens have been relegated to a climate-controlled storage closet in the basement.)
    The modern era of the Wistar Institute began with the 1957 appointment of Polish-born scientist Dr. Hilary Koprowski as director. During his 34 years at the helm, Koprowski lent an international flavor to the institute and staked out a clear new direction: basic research, with an emphasis on virology and immunology. In the early years of his tenure, vaccine development flourished at Wistar. But eventually, Koprowski’s focus shifted to cancer research. In 1972, it became one of the first institutions designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) as a federally approved basic-science cancer center. With NCI and private funding, a new cancer wing was appended to the original building a year later. The Koprowski years also saw major advances in the areas of tumor immunology, monoclonal antibody production and oncogene research.
    Under Dr. Giovanni Rovera, who took over as Wistar’s director in 1991, the institute emphasized technology transfer. While cancer remained the major thrust of its work, autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis were also given emphasis. Major discoveries about the body’s immune response to cancer and about HIV emanated from Wistar’s labs. And Rovera hired a staff of molecular biologists to direct Wistar on a new path: molecular and gene-based therapies, which today are widely touted as the key to controlling many human diseases, from cancer and AIDS to cystic fibrosis and cardiovascular disease. With Rovera’s retirement this past October, the Wistar Institute is now at a crossroads. The search for a new director, which began a year ago, continues.

Dr. Clayton Buck

Wistar’s acting director, Dr. Clayton Buck, speaks in carefully measured words as he describes the type of leader the Institute is looking for. “We want someone who can recognize good science and has a nose for future directions in science,” says Buck. The lucite Macintosh computer that sits on the large mahogany desk in his office seems chronologically out of place across the room from the century-old, ornately chiseled, oak fireplace. Surrounded by neat piles of paper—the letter he’s sending to Congress regarding NIH funding, the cancer center grant documents he needs to review, the scientific journals that he wishes he had time to read, he adds to the list of qualifications. The new director, says Buck, who plans to retire once his replacement is named, must have a keen working understanding of “translational research”; no ivory tower autocrat, he or she must be able to bridge scientific observation with public health utility. And, perhaps most importantly, this new director needs to possess the charisma to sell Wistar to the public, raise money to keep the institute operating, and form relationships with foundations that could lead to more grants for Wistar investigators.
    The importance of this last qualification is not lost on Dr. Claudio Basilico, chair of the microbiology department at the New York University School of Medicine and a member of Wistar’s external scientific-advisory committee. “Science is expensive nowadays,” he says. “In science, you need money to make money” to fund research. Indeed. Wistar’s 1999 operating budget was over $28 million.
    Each investigator at Wistar is responsible for procuring his or her own research funds. “We’re a soft-money institution,” Buck explains, “so if you can’t get money, you can’t work.” Though the investigators obtain most of their research dollars from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, foundations and private donors, a key component of the institute’s funding comes in the form of a core grant from NCI, to whom the investigators must submit their research budgets every five years.
    When Wistar became a national cancer-research center in the 1970s, it hired a group of young, progressive hotshots in the cancer field. With extremely low researcher turnover at Wistar, the original faculty remains mostly intact and now directs the institute’s mission. Today, cancer is clearly the flagship disease. Ninety percent of the labs are engaged in cancer research, and the rest of them are doing work that somehow relates to cancer, even if peripherally so.
    While cancer research is central to Wistar’s mission—and the source of the great bulk of its funding—the administration hopes to double its working labs to about 50 and, says Basilico, branch out in new research directions. Since NCI contributes substantial research dollars, diversifying outside of the realm of cancer will be difficult unless new sources of funding are identified. And surely, money and leadership are prerequisites for quality research. “If they don’t find a new director relatively soon and get more money soon, the good researchers here will start to leave,” Basilico says.




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