Russel E. Kaufman

Photo: Courtesy of the Wistar Institute What takes a man from checking midnight inventories at grocery stores in Ohio to directing one of the oldest private biomedical research institutes in the United States? Says the man who did it: strong values, great mentors, and a penchant for late nights. "All you have to do is look at a person's bookshelf and you'll see what they value," explains Russel E. Kaufman, the recently appointed director and CEO of Philadelphia's Wistar Institute. In taking c

Sep 2, 2002
Brendan Maher
Photo: Courtesy of the Wistar Institute

What takes a man from checking midnight inventories at grocery stores in Ohio to directing one of the oldest private biomedical research institutes in the United States? Says the man who did it: strong values, great mentors, and a penchant for late nights.

"All you have to do is look at a person's bookshelf and you'll see what they value," explains Russel E. Kaufman, the recently appointed director and CEO of Philadelphia's Wistar Institute. In taking charge, Kaufman has stocked his shelves with those most dear to him. A shelf of genetics books, and another on blood disease and cancer speaks to the research conducted and interrupted through the years. Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie represents the importance of mentors; Kaufman credits his own mentors for propelling him into medical science. And, a Sir William Osler text reminds him how a physician should behave. Incidentally, Osler spoke at Wistar's opening ceremonies in 1894.

An MD himself, Kaufman came to Wistar, a small, 26-laboratory institute nestled in the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, from a vice dean post at Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC. It was at Duke that he completed his residency in the early 1970s, climbing the ranks to chief medical resident by 1977. Kaufman took leave a year later for a research position at a National Institutes of Health hematology lab under the direction of Arthur Nienhuis. Barton Haynes, director of Duke's Human Vaccine Institute, worked as a resident with Kaufman and joined the NIH shortly before him. Haynes credits work with the likes of Nienhuis and R. Wayne Rundles for driving Kaufman's call to research. Important discoveries include the characterization of the ß-globin genes while working at the NIH, and the more recent discovery of the CD7 ligand, K12, a project on which Kaufman, 56, says he hopes to continue working on in a small capacity.

Regarding the eureka moment, Kaufman says, "Any time you know something that no one else in the world knows, it's a moment of exhilaration." His eyes glint as he reminisces about late-night visits to the lab. "I can remember walking into building 10 at the NIH and having my heart pound in anticipation of results." Alas, after his return to Duke in 1980, the call of administration weighed heavily on his hunger for research. He says, "Almost all of my early experiences in administration were done because a mentor or my supervisor called on me in a time of need. ... Almost always that was done at personal sacrifice." An example: In 1999 the federal Office of Human Research Protections (then the Office of Protections from Research Risk) shut down Duke's Institutional Review Board (IRB), halting all clinical trials. The same was happening at schools across the United States amidst concerns of lax IRB reporting procedures.1 "I was called upon to write the corrective action plan," says Kaufman. Putting down research and all else, he led a team to make necessary changes and reinstated the IRB in four days.

Wistar offers different challenges and different opportunities for the Kenton, Ohio-born Kaufman. Hilary Koprowski, who headed Wistar for a prolific 34 years from 1957 to 1991, draws an analogy with his own arrival at the institute. "In one way you could say it was a graveyard." He removed skeletons, human brains in jars, mummies, and the skeleton of a whale occupying half a floor. "I ... cleared out almost everything for lab space. It was attractive just because of that. You had the opportunity to create something in your own image. I think it's the same attraction for Russel."

Kaufman's priorities include expanding the research team by 12 to 15 members over the next five years. He talks of building stem cell biology, the development of mouse models for disease, and pharmacogenomics. "Those are areas where we are deficient--where we don't have the people we need," he says. Bolstering research in immunology, vaccine development, and systems biology also ranks high. Kaufman says he hopes to strengthen ties and collaborations with the University of Pennsylvania, where he has friends in high places, and the Philadelphia research community at large. In fostering a sense of science community he hearkens back to his days in North Carolina. "In Philadelphia, people tend to think about their institution. There are lots of opportunities here, and I think that people in Philadelphia don't articulate that the way people in Research Triangle Park do. In RTP, everyone says essentially, 'We're part of RTP.'"

But Kaufman has a few things to do before that. Koprowski says a major task will be bringing researchers together at Wistar. "Because of the lack of a director, the institute perhaps had not the feeling of one family." Clayton A. Buck served as acting director from 2000 to 2002, and says that Kaufman's first order of business is renewing the application for support as a National Cancer Institute Basic Cancer Research Center. Kaufman, who put himself through Ohio State University working such odd jobs as a plumber's helper and delivering school buses, knows he will need funding--public and private--to carry out his grand schemes. Kaufman says that once again, he's been pulling some late nights.

Brendan A. Maher can be contacted at bmaher@the-scientist.com.

1. H. Black, "Research and human subjects," The Scientist, 14[19]:1, Oct. 2, 2000.