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Closing In on Cancer : In Search of a Cure, a La Jolla Research Center Reaches Into the Outer Limits

February 19, 1989|KATHRYN PHILLIPS | Kathryn Phillips is a Pasadena writer .

Scientists have two ways to reach for immortality. They can make discoveries that are so fundamental and so important that they achieve eternal celebrity status. Or they can build an institution that carries on important work. In 1976, at 62, William Fishman began to do the latter. He quit his job as director of Tufts Cancer Research Center in Boston and, with his wife, Lillian, moved his lab equipment to La Jolla. He had been impressed during visits with the area's scientific community, and he knew that the winters in Southern California would be more tolerable than those in Boston.

Fishman wanted to build an institution that would approach cancer research by examining how both normal cells and cancer cells develop. He had a solid reputation among cancer researchers and a long history of receiving substantial grant funding for his research from the National Cancer Institute. He quickly found rentable lab space and won a $200,000 planning grant from the NCI. He put together a small staff of scientists. It was a good-quality staff, he said, but by 1979, Fishman knew he needed a "star" who could quickly increase the foundation's status and help build it into something lasting.

That star was Erkki Ruoslahti.

Ruoslahti had moved in 1976 from Finland to City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte. With him had come Eva Engvall, a Swedish scientist who had worked in his lab in Helsinki as a postdoc. As a graduate student in Sweden, Engvall developed the ELISA assay, a test now as common in labs as napkins are in restaurants and a tool used in AIDS diagnosis. At City of Hope, she collaborated with Ruoslahti to create a new method for separating fibronectin from the extracellular matrix, making it easier for biologists to study the protein.

At the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation, Engvall, 48, is studying a protein called laminin, its interaction with cells and its role in nerve regeneration. She is 5-foot-3, has an Ingrid Bergman accent and is impatient with diplomacy when she thinks bluntness will do. One wall in her office is dominated by pictures of cats. She raises Abyssinians as a hobby, and a series of cat runs stretch from the garage at the ranch-style house she shares with Ruoslahti. She gives her cats scientific names such as Recombinant Red.

As she sits in her lab office down the hall from Ruoslahti's, she recalls the first time they visited La Jolla shortly after moving to City of Hope. They drove along the coast route between Del Mar and La Jolla, past the white sandy stretch of Torrey Pines State Beach. "We wondered, 'What the hell are we doing in L.A. when we can be here?' "

She and Ruoslahti are joggers and tennis players. By the time Fishman's invitation to join the lab came in 1979, they had had enough smog. Ruoslahti was restless, eager to break free of established institutions and try something new.

"It was kind of a risk to come here," Ruoslahti says as he leads a visitor on a tour of the foundation. "But Eva and I had good grant support, so we figured, 'What the heck? Let's give it a try.' It was the right thing to do. We built up something, the research has gone well and we've had fun in the process."

He has helped add a small library and a three-story lab and administrative building to the complex. The foundation's research has evolved into four programs run by 22 staff scientists and about 120 postdocs, visiting scientists and technicians. The programs reflect the latest and anticipated trends in basic cancer research and cover the areas of the extracellular matrix, carbohydrate chemistry, gene regulation and oncogenes (see Page 11).

For an institution of its relatively small size, the foundation has managed to attract substantial funding, and postdocs marvel at how little effort it takes to obtain equipment or supplies for experiments compared to the academic institutions they've come from. It is one of only three National Cancer Institute-designated basic research labs in California (the others are Caltech in Pasadena and Salk). The foundation operates on a budget of about $11 million a year. Although some of that money comes from private and corporate donors, most of the funding--90%--comes from government grants.

"I think he's done an extraordinary job with that cancer center," Kenneth Yamada says of Ruoslahti. Yamada, an NCI cell biologist and a competing extracellular matrix researcher, adds, "I think (its) reputation really rests on him and his collaborators."

Ruoslahti realizes this and says he will have to help other scientists build up their programs and prestige if the foundation is to outlast him. In the next 10 years, he wants to more than double the amount of lab space and the number of staff scientists. He also wants to recruit a senior scientist who has a world-class reputation in molecular biology. To do that, the foundation will need to establish a $1.5-million endowment.

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