History of The Wistar Institute Cancer Center

Birth of the Cancer Center

In 1957, Hilary Koprowski, M.D., was appointed director of the Institute—a position he would hold for 34 years. Under his leadership, Wistar scientists began to devote increasing efforts to cancer research and made significant advances in tumor virology, carcinogenesis, and molecular biology.

In recognition of this increased focus on cancer research, the National Cancer Institute named Wistar as one of the first federally designated Cancer Centers. Today, Wistar is one of only seven NCI-designated Cancer Centers devoted solely to basic research. The Institute's capabilities in cancer research were greatly enhanced in 1975 with the addition of a cancer wing to Wistar’s main building, supported by $5 million provided by a construction grant from the NCI, as well as private donations. 

From 1975 until 1990, the Cancer Center focused its efforts on DNA and RNA tumor viruses and tumor immunology, using the developing technology of monoclonal antibodies. In the 1980s, emerging interest in molecular genetics led some Wistar scientists to concentrate their research on genes that contribute to the development of cancer.

A New Era Dawns

In 1991, Giovanni Rovera, M.D., became director of the Institute and Cancer Center. Rovera’s long-standing commitment to cancer research led him to recruit a talented group of young cancer investigators with expertise in genetics, structural biology, biology, and immunology. The Institute’s basic science programs were restructured to align with research opportunities and faculty interests.  Upon Rovera’s retirement in 2000, Clayton Buck, Ph.D., became acting director.

Russel E. Kaufman, M.D., was appointed director and CEO of the Institute and director of the Cancer Center in 2002. He embarked on strategic planning, faculty recruitment, and facility enhancements that would usher in a new era of growth and vitality for The Wistar Institute Cancer Center.

In 2010 cancer biologist Dario C. Altieri, M.D., was appointed director of Wistar’s Cancer Center and also became the Institute’s first Chief Scientific Officer. Altieri continues Kaufman’s legacy in growing the Cancer Center, seeking to recruit a “critical mass” of multidisciplinary researchers who can further both the Institute’s excellence in basic scientific research and the Institute’s ongoing efforts in translating discoveries into practical therapies to prevent and treat cancer. In 2015, Altieri succeeded Kaufman as president and CEO of the Institute but retains his role as director of the Cancer Center.

In 2012, the Wistar Institute Cancer Center restructured its programmatic areas, and introduced a new program, Tumor Microenvironment and Metastasis, to complement existing programs in Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis and Gene Expression and Regulation.  The changes better support new research themes developed by Wistar faculty, continue to build on Wistar’s scientific excellence, and ultimately fulfill the overarching institutional goal of merging basic, mechanistic cancer research with disease-relevant advances pertinent to cancer prevention, diagnosis and therapy.