Camelot In Nutley, N.J.: Roche Institute Of Molecular Biology Remembered

Remembered Author: Sidney Udenfriend In 1967, establishment of the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology (RIMB) by Hoffmann-La Roche received wide news coverage. In a relatively short time, the institute established itself as a world-class research and training center and maintained this reputation for almost 30 years. It came as a surprise, therefore, when in the fall of 1994 the staff of RIMB was informed by Roche that as of 1996 the institute would be disbanded. The closing of RIMB is as ne

By | October 30, 1995

Remembered Author: Sidney Udenfriend

In 1967, establishment of the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology (RIMB) by Hoffmann-La Roche received wide news coverage. In a relatively short time, the institute established itself as a world-class research and training center and maintained this reputation for almost 30 years. It came as a surprise, therefore, when in the fall of 1994 the staff of RIMB was informed by Roche that as of 1996 the institute would be disbanded.

The closing of RIMB is as newsworthy as its creation, and the scientific community should hear the story of what transpired in Nutley, N.J., since 1967-including details of our closing. As its founding director, and still a member with an active laboratory, I feel that I am in a position to tell the story of this unique institute, which, in spite of its success, is being dismantled.

My story is also a commentary on industry. One of industry's strengths is its ability to make and implement decisions rapidly. One highly placed executive can make decisions, the consequences of which can be profound. The rapidity of the creation of RIMB (one month from conception to reality) was not comprehensible to those in academia or government. Continued support of RIMB by Roche was generous to an extent that, again, has not been seen in academia or government. Unfortunately, because a company can move so rapidly, the demise of RIMB was just as swift as its creation. As I have learned, the longevity of RIMB within Roche represents an aberration in the pharmaceutical industry.

It should be noted that RIMB's scientific staff are salaried employees of Roche. In 1967, it took some persuasion to recruit academic types. As the institute's reputation grew, it became easier and easier to do so. The sudden closure of RIMB makes me doubt that academic scientists of stature who wish to conduct investigator-initiated research will, in the future, be recruitable as salaried employees to a company-sponsored institute.

I predict that such individuals will interact with industry only from tenure-based university professorships, as many now do, to insulate them from the fallout resulting from frequent changes in a company's policies and from turnover of management. I also expect that running a research organization such as RIMB through a university will necessitate endowed professorships, increasing the cost to a company considerably. Grant support will probably be required, as well.

I was probably naïve to believe that any company could support an institute such as RIMB indefinitely. Even Bell Laboratories was cut drastically following the AT&T breakup. Nevertheless, for more than a quarter of a century, here in Nutley (about 12 miles from Broadway and 42nd Street in New York City), we operated a research center that was the envy of scientists throughout the world, a Camelot of the biomedical sciences. At RIMB, scientists were completely supported, enabling them to turn their full attention to any research problem of interest to them without the distractions of teaching, grant and fellowship applications, or faculty meetings, and without the restrictions placed upon scientists in government. The only criterion for continued membership and promotion was the quality of one's research. RIMB was given a charter to this effect by Roche.

The four key individuals who brought the institute into being-two at the National Institutes of Health (Herbert Weissbach and myself) and two at Roche (John Burns and Alfred Pletscher)-had worked together in the same laboratory at NIH during the 1950s and knew each other well. In early spring 1967, I broached the concept of an institute to Burns, who had just become executive vice president for R&D at Roche in Nutley. This was rapidly approved by Pletscher, then vice president for international research at Roche in Switzerland. By late spring I accepted the directorship of the institute with a number of provisos, among them that Weissbach join me as associate director. In July 1967, RIMB came into being. By 1968, our first members arrived in Nutley and started working in temporary space. Groundbreaking for the institute's beautiful, state-of-the-art building took place in 1969. Over the years the institute was more than generously funded by the company.

Furthermore, Roche lived up to every detail of our charter. Research in the institute has always been initiated by its investigators.

I present these details to show how important Roche considered the institute, both at its founding and later on. In light of Roche's sudden decision to close it down, one must ask whether RIMB failed to live up to the company's expectations. Was the institute a success scientifically? Did it contribute significantly to the company? And, finally, did RIMB maintain itself at the forefront of research over the years? As I will show, RIMB more than satisfied all the above.

By all criteria, the institute has been staffed by outstanding and innovative scientists throughout its existence. Publications by RIMB scientists appear in the most prestigious journals, and the Science Citation Index has always rated RIMB among the top four or five independent institutes in the United States (Science Watch, 4:2, 1993). In addition, many members have been recruited as department chairmen, directors of other institutes, distinguished professors in prestigious universities, and leaders in biotech industry. Successful research centers generally provide excellent training for young scientists.

RIMB's postdoctoral fellowship and graduate student programs are among its greatest successes. Close to 1,000 fellows and 40 graduate students will have passed through the institute during its lifetime. Of these, 20 are now chairmen of academic departments, 50 full professors, 60 associate professors, and many more assistant professors. One is a university vice president. About 25 are independent investigators or department heads in research institutes. About 35 serve in leadership roles in the pharmaceutical industry. Members of RIMB received many awards and honorary degrees. Most significantly, there were at one time (1986-87) seven members of the National Academy of Sciences on the institute's staff, four (Herbert Weissbach, Ronald Kaback, Aaron Shatkin, and Alan Conney) elected solely for work carried out in Nutley. To keep this in perspective, RIMB's total staff of independent investigators averaged between 25 and 30. Of these, only 10 or so at any one time were full institute members (equivalent to full professor, the stage at which academy membership is generally awarded).

The presence of RIMB on the Nutley campus encouraged interaction with Roche's scientists. As early as 1969, these collaborations led to important products-directly, as with the development of diagnostics for drugs of abuse, Abuscreen; or indirectly, through the development of technologies, which later played a key role in the first isolation and characterization of the a-interferons and to Roche's patents for Roferon. All the pioneering work on interferons was carried out in the institute.

RIMB played a key role in Roche's setting up of a peptide group and a biopolymer/bioengineering group for large-scale isolation of proteins. RIMB helped Roche establish a department of mo-lecular biology with one of our senior staff as director and a number of junior staff its initial cadre. RIMB also urged Roche to set up a central cell-culture facility, again providing the director and space.

Research carried out at the institute at its founding was unquestionably at the cutting edge of molecular biology. Over the years it maintained that position, as shown by the scientific recognition accorded its members. However, the last few years brought about vast changes in the directions of biological research. Has RIMB kept up with this explosion in genetics and neuroscience, and, if so, what areas of investigation have its scientists emphasized recently?

We realized that the machinery for elucidating human and animal genomes was already very large and that the information obtained would soon be available to all. However, to make use of that information required an understanding of gene expression and regulation, areas in which institute members made a conscious decision to invest and that became its strengths. In 1993, RIMB had 27 members, 25 of whom were involved with gene regulation and development.

Under this rubric, several important areas were covered, including fetal development, membrane proteins, nutrient and humoral transporters, and signal transduction. About 13 projects in expression and regulation concerned the nervous system, and institute scientists are leaders in regulation of neural development, information storage in neurons, and sensory mechanisms. Today RIMB still finds itself in a leadership role in some of the most important areas of biomedical research.

In my opinion, RIMB more than met all the criteria set up in its charter from the company. It rapidly developed into a world-class research and training center and served as a window to the scientific world for Roche. The institute also developed important products. Beyond that, it was the institute that moved Roche into biotechnology and changed it from a traditional, chemically oriented drug company to a modern pharmaceutical company.

Why, then, did Roche decide to close the institute? In my estimation, this was due not to deficiencies on its part but to differences of opinion between Roche research management and RIMB as to future directions of research and to the organizational make-up of the institute. Difficulties in attracting a suitable director to succeed the retiring Weissbach, who had taken over the directorship in 1983, were a contributing factor. The acquisition of Syntex by Hoffmann-La Roche in the fall of 1994 gave management the option of setting up a research facility in Palo Alto, Calif., an area that would be more attractive for recruiting a new director and would permit them to redirect its research to genomics more rapidly, rather than gradually overhaul the existing RIMB.

Once it was decided to set up an institute in California, RIMB became a casualty of the company's downsizing. All of this does not, however, explain the suddenness of the institute's closing after it had been in existence for close to 30 years. In effect, our members had about eight months in which to locate positions here. Contrary to some reports, none were offered positions in Palo Alto.

The current dismantling of the institute is painful. Fortunately, the pain has been lessened for two reasons. First, our scientists find themselves in high demand, and most have received excellent job offers. What minimizes their pain further and adds to their attractiveness to outside institutions is the generous policy that Roche has adopted toward the termination of the institute's professional staff. The details of this policy were worked out through negotiations among Herbert Weissbach; Jurgen Drews, president of Hoffmann-La Roche's R&D worldwide; and Michael Steinmetz, vice president for R&D, Roche-Nutley. Scientists will receive personal financial termination packages proportional to their years in the institute as well as bridging grants toward the start-up of research at their new laboratories. They will also be permitted to take all their equipment, including large instruments, computers, and furniture, with Roche paying moving expenses.

Weissbach and I will stay on into 1996 to oversee the orderly closing of the institute and help place lab assistants and nontechnical staff as each investigator leaves. Another sad job is collecting and determining what to do with more than a quarter-century's accumulation of mementos and records.

Sidney Today, as my colleagues disperse, they admit that no matter how good their newly found jobs are, none are like the ones they are leaving. They are good scientists, and I know that they will prosper. However, each is leaving with the memory of the time we spent in this Camelot in Nutley, N.J.

Sidney Udenfriend is director, emeritus, of the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in Nutley, N.J.

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(The Scientist, Vol:9, #21, pg.12 , October 30, 1995)
(Copyright © The Scientist, Inc.)

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