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The First Basic Laboratory Cancer Center in the Nation

March 10, 2021

This year, the National Cancer Institute commemorates the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act, which changed the course of cancer research history in the U.S. In 1972, The Wistar Institute Cancer Center became the first Basic Laboratory Cancer Center in the nation.

By that time, cancer had become the second leading cause of death in the country, and President Nixon had declared a “war on cancer” and signed the National Cancer Act of 1971. A substantial part of the federal government’s support of this endeavor entailed providing funding to basic and translational research programs present on the territory with the designation of NCI Cancer Centers. Translating promising laboratory discoveries into new treatments, the NCI-designated cancer centers rapidly became the backbone of the NCI’s efforts for studying and controlling cancer.

With its leading-edge research and an international pool of top biologists on its faculty, Wistar entered the program at its onset. With support from a $3 million NCI grant and an additional $1.5 million raised by the Institute to build a new Cancer Research Building, Wistar made history becoming the first NCI-designated cancer center solely devoted to basic research. The Wistar Institute Cancer Center has been at the forefront of the field for almost half a century, investigating the causes underlying cancer while working to translate fundamental discoveries into cures.

A Look Back 

Under the scientific leadership of Wistar Director Hilary Koprowski, M.D., research at Wistar’s Cancer Center focused on the genetic alterations that take cells on the path of malignant transformation and the connection between viral infections and cancer, advancing new technologies for research and therapy.

It was the start of the DNA era, when scientists were beginning to unravel the genetic basis of cancer. Wistar researchers characterized some of the first chromosomal translocations, or genetic abnormalities caused by rearrangement of parts between chromosomes, responsible for causing lymphoma and leukemia. They also described how these rearrangements could break or alter the DNA sequence of oncogenes, leading to cancer.

Wistar scientists were among the first to pioneer monoclonal antibody technology, the first immunotherapy to be applied to cancer research. The Institute became a center of expertise in their production, quickly generating a large panel of antibodies for research and therapeutic purposes. The first clinical trial testing a monoclonal antibody for gastrointestinal cancer was conducted using a Wistar-generated antibody, and the first U.S. patent for monoclonal antibody technology was granted to Wistar. Monoclonal antibodies brought a revolution in tumor immunology and provided the basis for most of today’s targeted therapies and immunotherapies.

Armed with a deeper understanding of the role of genetic alterations in cancer and the ability to study and manipulate protein function with new technologies such as monoclonal antibodies, the field of cancer research moved forward to studying gene networks and signaling pathways. These pathways act in a highly orchestrated fashion so that changes in the function of one protein can affect a cascade of downstream events and drive tumor formation and spread. Wistar scientists focused especially on signaling pathways in breast cancer and melanoma.

One of the historic strengths of Wistar’s Cancer Center is structural biology — the study of the three-dimensional shape and structure of proteins, which informs how they function and interact with one another and with DNA. This type of investigation led to important advancements such as describing the physical structure of the enzyme that protects chromosome ends, called telomerase, and the creation of small chemical molecules that can fit into the functional pockets of target proteins and block their function.

The completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 opened the post-genomic era. Scientists started to explore the concept that activity and function of genes is not solely determined by their DNA sequence. It was revealed that an additional important layer of regulation exists and orchestrates the dynamic interaction between genes and external stimuli. Wistar embraced this nascent field of study, called epigenetics and genome regulation, launching a new research program. Wistar scientists contributed critical discoveries, unveiling the role of new proteins and RNA in the regulation of gene expression.

The Cancer Center Today 

In recent years, Wistar has brought onboard a group of both early career and distinguished scientists to strengthen and expand its programs in the fields of tumor immunology and immunotherapy, cancer cell metabolism and plasticity, tumor microenvironment and cancer genomics.

Wistar cancer scientists work cooperatively and share their diverse array of skills to meet new scientific challenges. They are furthering the understanding of how tumor cells interact with and adapt to the surrounding environment to grow and spread; the intricate role of our immune system in cancer; how altered gene regulation can lead to malignancies and affect response to therapy; and how some viruses can cause cancer. Basic discoveries in these areas are informing the Cancer Center’s translational efforts for the early development of novel immunotherapies, targeted therapies and biomarkers, also thanks to a recently added medicinal chemistry expertise and a vibrant network of collaborations with academic institutions and the biotech industry. 

Learn more about the National Cancer Act and the 50th anniversary commemoration.