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Author: The Wistar Institute

Wistar Scientists Study What Cancer Cells Crave

Wistar’s Zachary Schug and lab are studying the relationship between alcohol intake and some site-specific cancers

What do cancer cells need to thrive and grow? The Wistar Institute’s Zachary Schug, Ph.D. — assistant professor in the Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program at Wistar’s Ellen and Ronald Caplan Cancer Center — studies how cancer cells’ metabolism works and what cancer cells use for fuel. His lab is on a quest to understand how cancer cells process a nutrient called acetate. We sat down with Dr. Schug to talk about his work in the field of cancer metabolism and its relationship with our daily eating and drinking habits.

What is your lab discovering about what cancer cells need to thrive on and grow?

As researchers who study cancer metabolism, we’re interested in understanding and then hopefully stopping cancer cells from taking advantage of the nutrients available to them to grow and spread. We focus on acetate, a compound that forms when your body processes alcohol; when you drink, acetate is the main thing that alcohol gets broken down into. The liver has a high amount of acetate-metabolizing genes because that’s where our bodies detoxify alcohol.

When you binge drink alcohol, the acetate levels in your blood skyrocket, and acetate goes from being a nobody to a somebody. Both healthy cells and cancer cells can metabolize acetate, depending on the cell type, but we’ve seen certain cancers — including certain breast cancers, melanomas, and even blood cancers — express these acetate-metabolizing genes.

We think drinking alcohol might add fuel to the fire for precancerous or cancerous cells by giving them access to an abundance of acetate. It may accelerate their ability to take advantage of this alternative nutrient source to grow; that’s where we think part of the risk between alcohol and cancer comes from and where we need more research. Cancer adapts and changes over time to survive, so if a cancer is benefitting from acetate metabolism, it can increase the expression of the genes that let it take advantage of that.

My lab works on selectively stopping acetate metabolism in cancer, which we’ve been able to carry out both with gene editing and by designing a small molecule inhibitor with our collaborators as a possible drug candidate.

How does alcohol increase your risk for cancer?

That’s the big question I’m focused on. We know that alcohol correlates with cancer risk. But getting the data to confirm how alcohol puts you at risk, at the molecular level — what we rely on to come up with potential therapies — has been surprisingly difficult.

We have good granular data on alcohol use from people suffering from alcoholism specifically, but the general clinical data on alcohol use for cancer patients — that’s a lot less well characterized. Knowing the difference between someone who has a glass of wine with dinner five nights a week and someone who has five cocktails after work on Friday is especially important for gauging acetate levels, possible health impacts, etc.

We also have concerns about alcohol and acetate in the context of cancer remission. What if there are some cancer cells left behind that are predisposed to using acetate for their growth? Then continuing to drink or even increasing one’s amount of alcohol consumption could be a major risk — one we need to understand better so people can make informed decisions.

We are collaborating with the Philadelphia VA Medical Center and ChristianaCare for cancer patient blood samples, and I’m hopeful that, by collecting detailed survey data on their drinking habits in combination with analyzing their metabolic profiles we’ll be able to get a better understanding of the risk mechanics of alcohol.

Are there other possible health effects from acetate?

We think cancer isn’t the only thing involved in alcohol–acetate signaling. Because many bacteria also produce acetate as a by-product of bacterial metabolism, the immune system, when it sees a spike in acetate levels, can take that as a signal to combat infection. But if someone has chronic exposure to elevated acetate, it becomes a “boy who cried wolf” situation: the immune system starts to get used to higher levels of acetate as a new normal, which we think can put someone at greater risk for infections.

It’s worth considering our dietary and drinking habits carefully in light of realistic risks. This is why granular biomedical research is so important: once we understand what happens at the molecular level — X causes Y, which leads to Z — we have a much better picture of how to assess and combat risks to human health.

Dr. Dan Claiborne’s Discoveries That Catalyze New Discoveries

Daniel Claiborne, Ph.D., was recruited to The Wistar Institute through the Caspar Wistar Fellowship program, which fast-tracks promising early-career investigators to full faculty membership. Now an assistant professor in Wistar’s major research centers — the Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center as well as the Ellen and Ronald Caplan Cancer Center — his team focuses on understanding the immune system to develop new, more effective immunotherapies against cancer and other deadly diseases.

How do you explain your job to a non-scientist?

My lab works on immunotherapies, which are ways to enhance the immune system to do a better job fighting diseases, cancer, or any threat. We work on cell therapy and engineer immune cells to express proteins that redirect the cell and impart specific functions so that they can be injected into someone and attack whatever disease is marked by the surface proteins we’re targeting.

Every scientist has their own approach to a question; our approach uses the research area of immunotherapy as a springboard to understand the fundamentals of our immune system. All the incredible tools in this field give us a unique opportunity to get into the real nitty-gritty of what’s happening on the minute level of cell biology and how immune cells interact within our biological ecosystem.

I have this tongue-in-cheek sign that says, “DON’T DO EFFICACY STUDIES.” It’s a reminder to ensure our interventions are effective, generate novel understandings of how immunity works, and do not focus exclusively on clearing viruses and diseases as the endpoint for the experiment. Experiments directly testing efficacy can be important for gaining valuable insight too, but I want to take the science further as our primary focus.

We know how to run a test with a T cell that can kill a virus in a dish or clear the tumors in a model. Those results show that we’re moving in the right direction. We also know that moving an effective treatment from lab model to a person comes with many complications and differing results. The “why doesn’t this work?” question is what keeps my lab and I purpose-driven.

You want to know where the stumbling blocks are so you can build better, more predictive models?

I’d go further: I only want to use models where our cell therapies don’t work (initially). Years ago, I heard this at a conference, and it’s stayed with me: “models are lies that help you see the truth.”

No model system is perfect, they are contrived by their very nature because we designed them, but if we build models that are sufficiently advanced and most importantly stringent enough then we can say, “The treatment we’re testing has a relatively high probability of being potent in a human patient because this model system is so rigorous.” We’re getting better at accounting for what our model systems don’t do and being honest about the limitations, while prioritizing models that give us results that are more likely to be translational, rather than those that give us “good results” all the time.

What is it that you don’t know and what are you looking for?

We know more about how to get a T cell to express a given protein than we do about the ins and outs of how the T cells in your blood “know” when something is wrong, or when T cells decide to ignore those signals. We don’t even fully know why T cells stop working if they’re over-exposed to antigens, for example, though many in the field have contributed valuable insights into this process in the past several years. The intricate information exchanges between immune cells aren’t known to scientists so much as they are theorized, and that realm of the unknown naturally draws me in.

What’s your hope for your research?

I want our findings to become treatments and cures. But more importantly, I want our deep dives into the immune system to generalize to other areas of disease, cancer, and immune research. That is the key for sustaining progress: discoveries that empower even more discoveries.

My lab works on T cell therapy for HIV. It would be great if, in the near future, we discovered the right formulation of CAR T cell proteins to cure HIV once and for all — but that’s probably not going to be the sole solution to the very complex problem, but worthy endeavor, of an HIV cure. More likely, T cells will be part of the solution that, one day, produces an HIV cure. When we understand that, I believe we’ll understand T cells’ role in a wide variety of applications, too. Step one to that level of understanding is learning the cells inside and out.

NIH Seminar: How Does Diversity Impact Innovation in Team Science?

Special Event
Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Join Marie A. Bernard, M.D., NIH Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity, and Karen N. Salt, Ph.D., UK Research and Innovation’s Deputy Director for Research Culture and Environment, on March 13 at 10:30 AM for a 90-minute virtual seminar exploring the impact of diversity on innovation in the life sciences. Panelists will discuss approaches to improve training, foster inclusive teamwork, and impact leadership in the scientific workforce and the outcomes of this work.

Register Today

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Wistar’s 2nd Annual Trainee Research Symposium Showcases Research Inspiration for Early Career Scientists

Wistar capped off its second-ever Trainee Research Symposium on Friday, February 23, drawing more than 200 research trainees of all levels from across the region and beyond. Next-gen, diverse student scientists, bringing interests spanning a range of research disciplines, gathered at Wistar from schools including Arcadia, Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, St. Joseph’s University, University of Delaware, University of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson University, and Villanova.

Wistar Trainee Association co-presidents Brennah Britten, Ph.D. and SK Reiser, supported by Pratik Bhojnagarwala, Ph.D., and a host of trainees, created a lineup of diverse research representing melanoma and glioblastoma cancers, acetate and mitochondrial metabolism, ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), immune activation, tumor microenvironment, and more.

“The symposium is really a fantastic opportunity for students at various levels to share the amazing work that they’re doing, and also interface and learn from others that can help advance their science,” explained Brennah Britten, co-president of the Wistar Trainee Association. “This type of collaboration and information sharing is critical in our field, so we’re excited to hold this event and bring students together.”

The sold-out, all-day event featured poster sessions, a special presentation by Wistar’s Dr. Ami Patel, and a keynote address by Dr. Erika Pearce, Professor of Oncology at Johns Hopkins Medicine. The event culminated in the presentation of awards in a variety of categories. Winners included:

Best Talk

Gauri Mirji, Ph.D. (Wistar)

Best Postdoctoral Posters

First place: Qiang Zhang, Ph.D. (Wistar)
Second place: Davide Maestri, Ph.D. (Wistar)
Third place: Christopher Chen, Ph.D. (Wistar)

Best Graduate Posters

First place: Joseph Patria (University of Delaware)
Second place: Fabrizio Bertolazzi (Wistar)
Third place: Sarah Offley (Wistar)

Best Post-baccalaureate Posters

First place: Gabrielle Davis (PCOM)
Second place: Ella Cho (Penn)
Third place: Sarina Smith (CHOP)

Best Undergraduate Posters

First place: Kush Addepalli (Wistar/Penn)
Second place: Emma Burns (Villanova)
Third place: Arslie Louis-Jacques (Arcadia)

Thank you to our sponsors:

Lunch sponsor: AUM Biotech
Gold Sponsors: Genscript, SinoBiological, Miltenyi Biotec
Silver Sponsors: Biolegend, Azenta Life Science, Synbio Technologies, Revvity, Stemcell Technologies, Medchemexpress, Cell Signaling Technology 

2nd Annual Wistar Trainee Research Symposium

Whether it’s a business opportunity or a flower bed, The Wistar Institute’s Kathy Day helps it flourish

We talked with Kathy Day, administrative coordinator for the Business Development and Legal departments, on her path to Wistar, what she loves about her work, and her passion for gardening.

What does your day look like?

I arrive at work very early – I’m sitting at my desk by 6:05 a.m. so it’s very quiet here. That gives me an opportunity to get my coffee, to get settled in and start my day. First, I handle the Business Development (BD) mailbox. We receive lots of emails sent to that address, and I take some time to sort through what is BD related, and what should be disseminated to other departments. Then I start prioritizing my day, depending on what’s needed in Business Development and Legal.

Every day is exciting, every day is new. I don’t know what I will face along with the other daily administrative tasks that still have to be addressed. Scheduling calendars for the SVP of Business Development and VP of the Legal department can be challenging. Lots of what gets finalized at Wistar at some point comes through one or both of these departments. Most days it’s like a juggling act and making sure that meetings are prioritized accordingly and that nothing hopefully falls through the cracks. But that’s the exciting part about it! I love talking to people. I love interacting with people. I love it when we have legislative visitors that come in – Congressman, Senators etc. so, they can learn more about what we do. And everything that I do for Wistar I do to elevate our presence in the community.

What was your path to Wistar?

I’ve been at Wistar 15 years, which is surprising to me. I came here after 33+ years at FMC Corporation, where I was responsible for the communication support for the President, the CEO, Investor Relations and various Vice Presidents. I handled the press release distribution and the regular analyst conference calls. And for seven years I was part of a diversity initiative that required me to visit all the FMC locations, international and domestic, so I did a lot of traveling. I learned a great deal. We all bring something unique and special to the table, and you cannot expect to have fresh new ideas if everybody sitting around the table looks like each other.

How does your work support the science here at Wistar?

I feel like I make a contribution to everything that happens in our BD department at Wistar and I like that. Heather is a really good mentor. She includes me in practically everything so I know how the pieces fit together. It’s hard to do your job if you only know one piece of the puzzle. You need to know what’s important and how to prioritize and plan. It’s vital to know what’s important today, and what needs to be done next week or next month. I feel like I have an important role here, and I’m part of a team that makes me want to give my best and be my best.

What makes Wistar special?

The people are our greatest asset. We have the most wonderful group of people because they are so supportive. My husband passed in 2019, and the outpouring of support I received was amazing. I got letters, cards, text, and emails from people that just wanted to check on me, and when I came back to work, there was somebody standing at my desk checking on me every five minutes. That’s very, very special to me. I lost my mom last year and the Legal and BD departments were again very caring and supportive during that time. That’s one of the key things that has kept me here: the people. I know I don’t just have colleagues, I have friends – lifelong friends – here at Wistar.

What do you do to unwind?

I’m very active in my church, so I have lots of church-related activities I attend, and I receive lots of love and support from them. I have two wonderful children – a son and a daughter – who are very protective of their mother, so we spend a lot of time together. I have also become an avid gardener, which is funny because I used to kill cactuses. Now I have huge flower gardens and flower beds in front of my home. And I never knew I had that ability! My grandmother and my mother were great gardeners, but it never hit me until later. Now I love gardening when the weather gets warm, I love being outside. And last but not least, I love to spend a good day shopping and then going out for a great meal.

The Wistar Institute Appoints Max Berger to its Board of Trustees

PHILADELPHIA — (Feb 27, 2024) — The Wistar Institute, a global leader in biomedical research in cancer, immunology and infectious disease, is pleased to welcome Max Berger to its Board of Trustees.  Mr. Berger is currently president of MBA Equities, Ltd., a real estate investment firm in Narberth, PA.

Berger has been involved with The Wistar Institute for more than 15 years, originally joining its Leadership Council in 2008, where he was appointed co-chair. He brings to the role a strong background in business development, project management, and executive leadership. He will serve on the Board’s Audit and Development Committees.

Berger founded MBA Equities more than 40 years ago, after graduating with a degree in Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, and has successfully grown the business under his guidance, operating a wide variety of assets in the region.

“Wistar has some tremendously dedicated and passionate scientists, and I’m delighted to be part of its future success,” said Berger. “Basic research is the most critical aspect of discovery and finding cures. Without foundational research, and without collaboration, we cannot uncover the bedrock components that lead to meaningful treatments. I’m excited to lend my expertise to make sure Wistar thrives for another 200 years.”

“We are delighted to welcome Max to our Board of Trustees,” said Dario C. Altieri Ph.D., Wistar Institute president and CEO, director of the Ellen and Ronald Caplan Cancer Center, and Robert and Penny Fox Distinguished Professor. “His deep connection to Wistar, engagement with our science, and support of our mission exemplifies how his leadership will be a tremendous asset to our Board and the Institution.”

Berger is heavily involved in other activities in the Philadelphia area. He currently serves as Treasurer of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, a nonprofit that leads and supports efforts to improve Philadelphia’s parks, and he participates in the KleinLife Senior Center Executive Committee. He also served on the board of the Perelman Jewish Day School for 18 years. He resides in Narberth, PA, with his wife, Elyse, where together they raised three sons.


The Wistar Institute, the first independent, nonprofit biomedical research institute in the United States, marshals the talents of an international team of outstanding scientists through a highly enabled culture of biomedical collaboration and innovation. Wistar scientists are focused on solving some of the world’s most challenging and important problems in the field of cancer, infectious disease, and immunology. Wistar has been producing groundbreaking advances in world health for more than a century, consistent with its legacy of leadership in biomedical research and a track record of life-saving contributions in immunology and cell biology.

Wistar Scientists Discover Link Between Leaky Gut and Accelerated Biological Aging

Dr. Mohamed Abdel-Mohsen and collaborators discovered a connection between gut damage and premature biological aging in people living with chronic viral infection

PHILADELPHIA—(Feb. 21, 2024)—The Wistar Institute’s associate professor Mohamed Abdel-Mohsen, Ph.D., has demonstrated, with his lab and collaborators, a connection between viral damage to the gut and premature biological aging. The group found that this pro-aging connection can contribute to both gut permeability and premature systemic & intestinal tissue aging in people living with chronic HIV infection, and their discovery is detailed in the newly published paper titled, “Distinct Intestinal Microbial Signatures Linked to Accelerated Systemic and Intestinal Biological Aging,” published in the journal Microbiome.

When people’s bodies age faster than their chronological years — a condition known as accelerated biological aging — they become more vulnerable to serious health issues usually seen in older adults, including cancers, heart diseases, brain disorders, severe infections, and reduced vaccine effectiveness. Dr. Abdel-Mohsen investigates what drives this rapid aging and how to create ways to slow down biological aging and improve health.

A prime suspect in this aging puzzle is the gut microbiome and its potential leakage into the bloodstream. The Abdel-Mohsen lab investigates how gut leakage can impact the immune system and lead to chronic inflammation, which may accelerate aging.

To delve into this question, Dr. Abdel-Mohsen and colleagues analyzed samples from people living with chronic HIV infection. Living with chronic HIV infection is known to potentially accelerate or accentuate biological age, which makes it an excellent model to investigate mechanisms of accelerated biological age in people living with chronic conditions.

In particular, the investigative team analyzed colon, ileum, stool, and blood samples from people living with chronic HIV infection and well-matched controls. Their analysis revealed a significant connection between disrupted gut microbiomes, increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut), and faster biological aging.

Notably, they observed a connection between accelerated biological aging and the microbiomes of both the colon and ileum, but not the fecal microbiome. This suggests that the location of the microbiome significantly impacts its effects and highlights the importance of sampling intestinal tissues to accurately understand the connection between the microbiome and age.

Biological age can be measured through several advanced methods like telomere length analysis and “epigenetic clocks,” such as the Hannum and Horvath clocks, which evaluate age based on DNA methylation patterns. DNA methylation, which involves methyl groups attaching to nucleotides in DNA, varies with age, and these epigenetic clocks use certain variations in methylation to estimate biological age.

The team’s application of several advanced methods to measure biological age to blood and intestinal tissue samples is the first analysis of its kind in people living with HIV, and their examination of the link between the microbiome and intestinal biological age in this population is a novel exploration of chronic HIV’s aging effects in the microbiome.

The work of Dr. Abdel-Mohsen and his team highlights specific bacteria and their by-products as potential accelerators of aging. These findings open new avenues for developing strategies to mitigate these bacteria and their byproducts, which could potentially enhance the duration of good health in the lives of people living with chronic conditions like chronic infections.

“More investigation is needed to fully understand the underlying causes and potential impacts of our findings,” said Dr. Abdel-Mohsen. “Moreover, there’s a crucial need to create strategies to prevent intestinal dysbiosis and gut leakiness and to determine how these strategies could affect an individual’s biological age. Our work is just the beginning of an exciting journey into enhancing health and longevity.”

Co-authors: Shalini Singh, Leila B. Giron, Aaron R. Goldman, Joao L. L. C. Azevedo, Toshitha Kannan, and Mohamed Abdel-Mohsen of The Wistar Institute; Maliha W. Shaikh, Phillip A. Engen, Zlata R. Bogin, and Simona A. Bambi of Rush Center for Integrated Microbiome and Chronobiology Research; Shivanjali Shankaran, Alan L. Landay, and Ali Keshavarzian of Rush Center for Integrated Microbiome and Chronobiology Research and Department of Medicine, Rush University; Lorena Orgaz, Nuria de Pedro, and Patricia González of Life Length; Martin Giera, Aswin Verhoeven, and Elena Sánchez-López of Leiden University Medical Center; Ivona Pandrea of University of Pittsburgh; Ceylan E. Tanes and Kyle Bittinger of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; and Michael J. Corely of Weill Cornell Medicine.

Work supported by: National Institutes of Health grants R01DK123733, R01AA029859, R24AA026801, R01AG062383, R01AG062383-04S1, and R01NS117458; the Penn Center for AIDS Research (P30AI045008); and the NIH-funded BEAT-HIV Martin Delaney Collaboratory to cure HIV-1 infection (1UM1Al126620). The Wistar Proteomics and Metabolomics Shared Resource is supported in part by NIH Cancer Center Support Grant CA010815. The Thermo Q-Exactive HF-X mass spectrometer was purchased with NIH grant S10OD023586. This research was also supported in part by philanthropic funding from Mr. and Mrs. Larry Field, Mr. and Mrs. Glass, Mrs. Marcia and Mr. Silas Keehn, the Sklar Family, the Johnson Family, and Mr. Harlan Berk.

Publication information: “Distinct Intestinal Microbial Signatures Linked to Accelerated Systemic and Intestinal Biological Aging,” from Microbiome


The Wistar Institute, the first independent, nonprofit biomedical research institute in the United States, marshals the talents of an international team of outstanding scientists through a culture of biomedical collaboration and innovation. Wistar scientists are focused on solving some of the world’s most challenging and important problems in the fields of cancer, infectious disease, and immunology. Wistar has been producing groundbreaking advances in world health for more than a century, consistent with its legacy of leadership in biomedical research and a track record of life-saving contributions in immunology and cell biology.

Wistar has an amazing history of helping people: A conversation with Dr. Wujuan Zhang, Managing Director of Metabolomics and Lipidomics Core Facility 

Dr. Wujuan Zhang, shown fourth from left in photo above, recently joined Wistar’s Metabolomics and Lipidomics Core Facility. We spoke to her about her background, her career path, and how she celebrates Lunar New Year.

You were previously at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. What led you to Wistar?

I was recruited in August to be the Managing Director of Metabolomics and Lipidomics Core, after 16 years working at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC). I’m very excited to work with Dr. Aaron Goldman, who is the scientific director and a well-rounded biologist, and other members of the team, each with a unique set of expertise to continue our efforts of building a stronger Metabolomics and Lipidomics program. We strive to provide the best service we can to our top-notch researchers at Wistar and surrounding cancer centers and academic universities.

This new role gives me more opportunities to interact with people, to learn, grow and make an impact. I continually strive to gain new knowledge and wisdom wherever I can.

How does working at The Wistar Institute differ from your experience at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital?

Even though I may have shifted away from the clinic field in which my work has been involved in a lot of clinic tests for patients and managing bioanalytical arm of clinical studies, it’s all connected. The early-stage discovery research that we do here leads to therapies that eventually benefit the patient. Wistar has an amazing history of helping people worldwide – even my children! – through things like the MMR vaccine and others. None of those things would be possible without the work that Wistar researchers have done. It all starts here, and I am honored to join the team.

What have your initial impressions been of the culture at Wistar?

Right away I noticed that it is a very collaborative environment. Because it’s a middle-sized research organization, it’s easy to establish great working relationships with researchers and labs. I really want to make a lasting contribution to science – that’s my goal.

You and your family currently reside in Cincinnati. How do you manage such a long commute?

I go home every two weeks to be with my family. I try my best to balance work and family. I’m very focused when I’m here, but when I’m home, I’m focused on my family and enjoy time with them. I have three children – one 11-year-old, one 13-year-old, and one 17-year-old – and I teach them the same thing: focus on your homework, and then go play and have fun. That way, there are no distractions.

My oldest daughter applied for both Drexel and Penn, so hopefully she will be closer to me. Long term – maybe in two or three years, when my middle child is ready for college – we’ll think about moving together. My husband is very supportive and helps manage the family while I’m away.

You’re originally from China. What has your path looked like?

My hometown is three hours driving distance of Lanzhou, a city in the northwest region of China. I came to Cleveland, Ohio in 2001 to get my Ph.D. work done, then worked at Cincinnati Children’s. Now I’m in Philadelphia exploring multiple opportunities. You have to seek them out.

There are so many different cultures here, but we have so much in common. We may come from different places, but at the core, we’re all the same. I try to be open to learn from other people and their unique experiences. It really helps to understand other people when you are up close and speaking to them.

Will you celebrate the Lunar New Year with your family?

Yes! During the Lunar New Year, it’s very important to connect with family. Dumplings signify love, so that definitely will be an important dish to put on the dinner table along with many other yummy foods. In the United States, we only have small celebrations, throw parties to connect with friends and neighbors. In China, we used to get two weeks off and celebrate. It starts on the first day of Lunar New Year and ends with the Lantern Festival, which signifies the end of the

Lunar New Year. We light small lanterns and let them float into the sky or hang on our houses for decoration. It’s a very beautiful scene.

The Wistar Institute’s NCI-Designated Cancer Center Named in Honor of Caplan Family’s Generous Support 

A gathering of Wistar employees, donors and senior leaders assembled outside The Wistar Institute on February 13th to unveil a new tribute to a family that has made an indelible impact on The Wistar Institute: Ellen and Ronald Caplan.  

With Ellen, Ron, and their son Matthew Caplan looking on, Dr. Dario Altieri, president and CEO of The Wistar Institute, removed a blue fabric drape to reveal the permanent sign, which reads “Ellen and Ronald Caplan Cancer Center.”  

The tribute was installed to recognize the Caplan’s principal gift for Wistar’s National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Cancer Center. Ron, who is the founder and president of PMC Property Group, Inc., and his wife Ellen made the gift to empower Wistar’s world-leading scientists in their search for high-impact discoveries toward promising cancer therapies. 

The Caplans have long-standing ties to Wistar. Ron has been a member of the Institute’s Board of Trustees since 2009, and in 2014, he and Ellen donated the 200-seat, high-tech Sarah and Matthew Caplan Auditorium in the Robert and Penny Fox Tower — named for their children in the hope that cancer’s cure would be found in their lifetime. As chair of Wistar’s Bold Science // Global Impact Campaign, Ron has contributed his leadership to help raise more than $50 million to power Wistar Science.  

During a reception following the unveiling, Dr. Altieri explained why philanthropy plays such an important role in advancing Wistar Science. “Wistar philanthropy is about the future — the promise and the hope for discoveries that have yet to be made,” he said. “We’ve learned science can transform the world, and we cannot be more grateful for people like the Caplans who have the vision to support that spirit of discovery.” 

Ron explained that his family has been directly impacted by cancer, and the gift is intended to help accelerate future discoveries that could lead to therapies and cures for the disease.  

“My son Matthew lost his grandmother to cancer when she was just 52. Today, she would have lived because of the great scientists that are here every day, trying to make the world a better place,” he said to a room full of Wistarians. “Ellen and I are thrilled that we’re able to make this gift to Wistar, and I’m honored that I’m lucky enough to be able to contribute to a place that is so wonderful.” 

The Wistar Institute Announces New Caspar Wistar Fellow, Dr. Irene Bertolini

Wistar scientist joins faculty to pursue research in breast and brain cancers

PHILADELPHIA—(Feb. 13, 2024)— The Wistar Institute, an international biomedical research leader in cancer, infectious disease, immunology, and vaccine development, is pleased to announce the recruitment of Irene Bertolini, Ph.D., to the Ellen and Ronald Caplan Cancer Center, where she joins Wistar’s Immunology, Microenvironment, and Metastasis Program as a Caspar Wistar Fellow.

Dr. Bertolini’s promotion to Wistar faculty is made possible by the Caspar Wistar Fellows Program, which supports outstanding junior scientists in the early stages of their careers as independent investigators. As a faculty member, Dr. Bertolini now runs her own laboratory, which allows her to pursue and develop her research interests in collaboration with Wistar scientists as well as biomedical researchers throughout the world.

“I’m both excited and grateful for the opportunity to join the faculty of The Wistar Institute as a Caspar Wistar Fellow,” said Dr. Bertolini. “I know first-hand the exceptional environment and resources that Wistar has to offer new investigators like me — I can’t think of a better place to start my lab.”

Dr. Bertolini is establishing the Bertolini lab to study the relationship between breast & brain cancers and extracellular vesicles, which are packets of biological materials that cells emit and exchange. Certain extracellular vesicles from cancerous cells can contribute to conditions that can promote cancer’s growth and spread, and Dr. Bertolini’s research program aims to characterize — and, ultimately, find a way to stop — the pro-cancer mechanisms of extracellular vesicles.

“Irene has been an invaluable member of my lab for years, so it is a special pleasure for me to watch her step up to the role of Caspar Wistar Fellow,” says Dario Altieri, M.D., Wistar president and CEO, director of the Ellen and Ronald Caplan Cancer Center, and the Robert and Penny Fox Distinguished Professor. “With years of experience and a love for her work, Dr. Bertolini will do the Wistar name proud. Her work on the tumor microenvironment and extracellular vesicles is an exciting contribution to Wistar’s cancer research, and I look forward to seeing what the Bertolini lab will accomplish.”


The Wistar Institute, the first independent, nonprofit biomedical research institute in the United States, marshals the talents of an international team of outstanding scientists through a culture of biomedical collaboration and innovation. Wistar scientists are focused on solving some of the world’s most challenging and important problems in the field of cancer, infectious disease, and immunology. Wistar has been producing groundbreaking advances in world health for more than a century, consistent with its legacy of leadership in biomedical research and a track record of life-saving contributions in immunology and cell biology.

For a printable version of the press release, click here.