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Unrestricted Planned Gift Supports Purchase of State-of-the-Science Instrumentation

November 29, 2022

Luis J. Montaner, D.V.M., D.Phil, and his team are making tremendous strides studying the ability of natural killer (NK) cells, a type of immune cell, to wipe out HIV-infected cells. Meanwhile, other groups within Wistar’s HIV Research Program, which Montaner leads, are in hot pursuit of alternative immunotherapy strategies, such as modified antibodies and CAR T cell therapies, to stamp out infected cells.

The research progress of all these labs was recently pole-vaulted forward thanks to a generous and visionary seven-figure unrestricted planned estate gift from Robert A. Fox (Bob). Bob, who passed away in 2021, helped transform Wistar into a leading biomedical research institute, through numerous donations that he and his wife, Penny, made and his two-decade role on Wistar’s Board of Trustees.

The new unrestricted gift enabled the purchase of three state-of-the-science advanced instrumentation and equipment. Flow cytometry is technology that isolates specific types of cells from tissue samples for analysis, along with a host of other customizable features, that will benefit and advance a wide range of Wistar scientists. Another is a technology platform consisting of two pieces of equipment for high-resolution imaging and spatial profiling of cellular structures and molecules at unprecedented speed and scale. The system will forge new insights into interactions between cancer and immune cells and the tumor microenvironment that nearly every lab at Wistar can deploy. The third is equipment, which is dedicated to the HIV Research Program, for a live cell analysis system that tracks cells growing in tissue culture plates.

“The investment is going to accelerate an excellence that is already here,” says Montaner, who is the vice president of Scientific Operations and associate director for Shared Resources at Wistar. “It is not a bet by any means. It is a sure thing that, by providing these tools, scientists can answer questions we couldn’t before, and answer the questions we were after better with added insights that will allow to move novel concepts towards clinical trials faster,” he explains.

The live cell analysis system will allow all laboratories in the Wistar HIV program to pinpoint exactly how well and how quickly various immunotherapy strategies are killing HIV-infected cells. The equipment also opens the door to being able to gather multiple timepoints on samples from HIV-infected patients, which are typically of very limited quantity.

The equipment is now bolstering research on developing combination immunotherapy as a cure for HIV for which the Montaner Lab and other groups in the BEAT-HIV Martin Delaney Collaboratory were awarded a five-year, $29.15M award from the NIH last year.

One of the most powerful aspects of an unrestricted gift is the time it saves. The traditional route that Wistar, and research institutes in general, take to obtain new, cutting-edge equipment is to apply for an NIH Shared Instrumentation Grant. But applications are only accepted once a year, and if grants are reviewed well and awarded, which has been the case for many of Wistar’s last submissions, it still takes one to two years to receive the equipment. Instead, an unrestricted gift entrusts Wistar to direct the support where it thinks it can have the greatest benefit and purchase equipment immediately.

“Unrestricted gifts allow Wistar scientists the capacity to quickly seize opportunities to remain competitive in an environment that is very dynamic when it comes to platforms that allow you to innovate,” Montaner says. “This gift advances what we are doing right away, while simultaneously increasing our competitive edge to grow our programs by writing new grant proposals that take advantage of the state-of-the-art capacities.”

In addition to the work in the HIV Research Program to help bring immunotherapies to the clinic, the investment will benefit Wistar’s research on cancer therapies and COVID-19 vaccines. “The impact is immediate with both present and future returns for all of these programs,” Montaner says.