From Communism to Cytokines
A renowned microbiologist and Academy patron reflects on his education in Czechoslovakia and his dreams for future innovation.
He is a man who spent his life challenging the limitations of our immune system; a celebrated member of the Biotechnology Hall of Fame whose research led to the development of a revolutionary class of therapeutic drugs; an inventor who holds 46 U.S. patents; and a philanthropist who leads a foundation that honors and supports immigrants in the sciences and the arts, who also supports several programs at NYU School of Medicine where he serves as professor of microbiology. But there was a time when Jan Vilcek could have easily become a very different person; Jan Vilcek was going to be a journalist.
Were it not for one small hitch, one tiny political detail, Vilcek's ground-breaking research might have never been realized; his inspiring only-in-America immigrant story, one that involved a clandestine "one way trip" from Czechoslovakia to Austria, Germany, and finally, the U.S. in the mid-1960s, might have never played out. Those suffering from Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and dozens of other inflammatory disorders might have had to wait even longer for effective treatment—perhaps never experience it in their lifetime. Furthermore, Vilcek's recent gift to the New York Academy of Sciences, a contribution that will foster a new generation of scientific breakthroughs, would have likely never have materialized.
Luckily, though, Vilcek was not a member of the Communist party, nor did he have any intention of taking up the hammer and sickle.
"To be a writer or journalist required membership in the Communist party and I was not in love with communist ideology, so that was clearly not an option," he remembers during a recent interview from his home in New York. "Law and business school did not really exist in communist Czechoslovakia. More or less by elimination I realized that medicine was a good option."
In a very short time, however, Vilcek, now 79, had forgotten all about his reporter aspirations and "literally fell in love with the whole process of laboratory research." He was in his second year of medical school, about 19 years old, and marveling at the wealth of information at his fingertips.
"What I enjoyed most was going to the library, with my rather insignificant projects, and reading about what other people had done," says Vilcek. He graduated in 1957—"about a hundred years ago," he jokes—and skipped an internship and residency to become a researcher for the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences' Institute of Virology in his native Bratislava, now the capital of the independent Slovak Republic.
Avenue of inquiry: Interferon
Like any young scientist worth his salt, Vilcek juggled many—probably too many—avenues of inquiry at any given time, but he kept returning to one in particular: the immune system protein interferon, whose founding father of sorts, a man named Alick Isaacs, had lectured at the Institute. Vilcek ended up publishing a paper about interferon in the journal Nature. He was just three years out of medical school at the time but was the sole author of the piece—a major coup for the young researcher.
"So that determined what I was going to work on for pretty much the rest of my scientific career," he explains. Embarking on his professional journey proved no small task. Vilcek considered leaving Czechoslovakia a prerequisite to any future success, but the Communist government would not even grant him permission to accept a postdoctoral fellowship in England, let alone emigrate.
So, despite Vilcek and his new wife Marica's fears of repercussions for their families—but with the whole-hearted blessing of their parents—the couple developed the only exit strategy they could: a weekend visit to Vienna would become an escape to America. "We were young and optimistic," Vilcek recalls, noting that he and Marica left Czechoslovakia without passports, which forced them to declare refugee status in Germany.
Vilcek says that interferon, that little protein that had long nagged at his conscience, helped him quickly secure a ticket to a new life. Within 4 months of leaving home, Vilcek received American visas for himself and his wife, along with three job offers in the U.S. He accepted a position at New York University in 1965, where today he is a professor of microbiology in the School of Medicine.
There was a steep learning curve, however. "When I came, the chairman of the microbiology department told me, 'Well, we'll pay your salary and here's your laboratory,'" Vilcek says. The lab was empty. "I said, 'How can I start my research?' and he said, 'Well, you write grants and when you get money you can buy your equipment and get students.' So that was quite new for me."
But Vilcek adapted, with the help of devoted postdocs and students, and went on to conduct transformative research on cytokines—hormone-like proteins produced in the body that control the immune system. Vilcek's findings contributed to the development of the anti-inflammatory drug Remicade, the pioneer in a new class of therapeutics called TNF blockers, now widely used in the treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases.
By 2000, Vilcek and Marica were ready for a new challenge and they felt they were in a position to give back. They created the Vilcek Foundation, with the goal of supporting small projects in biomedical research. "But after a few years we realized we could never compete with the Gates Foundation or the Howard Hughes Institute," Vilcek admits. "We started to think of what we could do to provide a more unique niche to the Foundation."
To this day, neither Vilcek nor Marica, who is an art historian, can agree on who came up with the idea that would shape the Vilcek Foundation as we know it. But both concur that the new direction for their foundation was a natural fit: They would use their resources to raise public awareness of the contributions of immigrants to the sciences, arts, and culture in the United States.
To that end, the foundation regularly hosts immigrant artists and performers at its gallery space in New York City; it awards the annual Vilcek Prizes in the biomedical sciences and the arts and humanities (among this year's winners is virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma).
Thankfully, the Vilceks did not stop there. Their regular and generous unrestricted gifts to the Academy enable the organization to take on large-scale projects and new ventures, such as those dedicated to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, Alzheimer's disease, nutrition science, and sustainability. It was an easy decision, according to Vilcek, who says he has been "extremely impressed with the plans and new programs" that the Academy has instituted under President and CEO Ellis Rubinstein.
"I am more and more impressed, as the years go by, with the variety of very innovative programs that the Academy is introducing," Vilcek goes on. "And also the fact that it is no longer an organization with just regional or national aspirations. It does work in a variety of countries, and I find that really impressive."
That Vilcek would wish to support research on an international scale is a fitting capstone to a career and life that began amid the constraints of Communism, where professional promise lay in the glistening laboratories outside Czechoslovakia.
But Jan Vilcek, who in 2012 was awarded a National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Obama, knows better than most that real potential is waiting in unlikely places. And he knows, too, that there is a lifetime of work that remains to be done.
Vilcek talks of future advances in immune system research as if he can already visualize the results—published in a scientific journal, perhaps, by a rising young researcher not unlike the newly-graduated Vilcek fresh at NYU.
"There are many areas—herpes viruses, HIV, and malaria, for instance—where it's not known whether we can at all induce a protective immune response," Vilcek says of his hopes for future research advancements. And he is crystal clear about his commitment to discovery. "Without support for basic research, there soon would be nothing to translate," Vilcek says. "We need new findings."
Noah Rosenberg is a freelance journalist in New York City.
Image: Jan Vilcek, MD, PhD, is congratulated by President Obama upon receiving the 2012 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government upon inventors. Photo courtesy Ryan K. Morris / National Science & Technology Medals Foundation.