Dario C. Altieri
The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia recently celebrated its 125th anniversary.
Established in 1892, the institute is the first NCI-designated basic research center in the nation and the first independent, nonprofit biomedical research center with a focus on cancer research and vaccine development for infectious diseases.
The institute’s longstanding mission is to organize its scientific breakthroughs through a highly enabled culture of biomedical collaboration and innovation, and produce groundbreaking advances in world health.
“The institute has reinvented itself many times during the past half-century, and has been home to some of the most significant and groundbreaking discoveries in the areas of vaccine, immunology and cancer research,” Dario C. Altieri, MD, president and CEO of The Wistar Institute and director of Wistar’s Cancer Center, told HemOnc Today.
Altieri spoke with HemOnc Today about the growth of the institute over the past 125 years, the research that is being conducted there now, and what the future will hold for the institute and biomedical research.
Question: Can you talk about the growth of the institute during the past 125 years?
Answer: Wistar originally was founded by Brig. Gen. Isaac J. Wistar to host the anatomical collections of his great uncle, Caspar Wistar, MD, a professor of anatomy at University of Pennsylvania. The Wistar building came to be a museum for quite some time, and it was not until the 1920s that Wistar changed its charter and mission to a research organization solely dedicated to biomedical research. To this day, we do not treat patients or give degrees. We are solely dedicated to research. The real growth of the institute has taken place during the past decade. There has been a concerted effort to re-expand the footprint of The Wistar Institute, which culminated in 2014 with the opening of a new research tower. This has been the engine for a significant expansion of both the faculty and the research teams pursued. Oncology and infectious disease are the two central themes of research at The Wistar Institute.
Q: What type of oncology research is underway?
A: We have strong interest in the basic understanding of tumor biology. This is not necessarily linked to one specific cancer type, but the advances could be broadly applicable to various types of cancer. We also have a strong emphasis on melanoma, as well as prostate, lung and ovarian cancers.
I am most excited about some of the seminal advances in melanoma research that we have spearheaded — for example, understanding the biology of BRAF-mutated melanoma, which accounts for about half of all melanomas. Some of the conceptual and translational advances were made here. I am also excited about some of the work going on in ovarian cancer. This is a difficult-to-treat tumor. Patients do respond to chemotherapy, but they frequently relapse. When they relapse, the disease often has become resistant to the standard of care. I am very excited about some of the new therapeutic prospects that are emerging from our labs, particularly related to epigenetics, which may open new therapeutic opportunities for the management of these patients. Other, perhaps more mechanistic but just as clinically relevant advances we are excited about have to do with the role of aging — in particular, the aging conditions of the tumor microenvironment and how these changes influence the process of metastasis, an often-fatal development in the natural history of a tumor. We have been making significant strides toward a better understanding of these more basic but highly relevant clinical problems.
Q: What type of research is being conducted
A: When it comes to Wistar’s Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center, our interests are in emerging infectious diseases — for example, Zika, as well established infectious diseases that are still health-related threats, such as HIV. Wistar is leading a nationwide effort, funded by the NIH, to bring the prospects of an HIV cure closer to a reality.
I would describe HIV research as a ‘flagship’ for Wistar research, but we have placed emphasis on emerging threats. We have a very strong and vibrant vaccine discovery and development program related to the Zika virus, which has been a very significant health threat more recently. There also are dangerous emerging infectious agents, such as Lassa fever and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), for which preventive measures or vaccines are not available. We are very interested in being innovators and trying to identify ways in which we can develop vaccines against these new emerging infectious diseases.
hich leaders of the institute have had the most profound impact on medical research?
A: A few come to mind. Paul A. Offit, MD, and Stanley A. Plotkin, MD — whose work started at Wistar and eventually transferred to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia — created a number of critical vaccines that are in clinical use, such as the vaccine against rotavirus. It is a health problem in this country, but it is life threatening in the developing world. Plotkin also contributed to the rubella and rabies vaccines, along with Hilary Koprowski, MD, who was the director of Wistar for almost 40 years. Additionally, some of the work done by Carlo M. Croce, MD, on oncogenes and chromosome translocation as drivers in the onset and development of certain hematologic tumors also was done here. These mechanistic advances paved the way for the later successful development of molecular therapies. I think the work that David Weiner, PhD, is doing using recombinant DNA technology to generate vaccines is remarkable and is also signature work for The Wistar Institute.
Q: What might the future hold for the institute and biomedical research in general? What excites you
A: The model of a freestanding research institute is interesting. There are other institutes like Wistar, but not many. I think we have a very strong and important message, which is that we need places that are solely devoted to research. There are no distractions. The faculty and scientists we recruit are hired to do one thing: advance knowledge and generate discoveries. Going forward, we see important opportunities to capitalize on the unprecedented understanding of cancer and cancer biology — opportunities that have the potential to bring to life the prospect of personalized medicine. We see similar opportunities in the area of infectious diseases, where the prospect of developing safe and effective vaccines at a fraction of the current cost is becoming a reality. Having a single-mission institution where everyone is focused on these goals is very exciting and has been the tradition of this institute for the past 125 years. We have a history of success that we certainly hope to continue. – by Jennifer Southall
For more information:
Dario C. Altieri, MD, can be reached at The Wistar Institute, 3601 Spruce St., Philadelphia, PA 19104.
Disclosure: Altieri reports no relevant financial disclosures.