In the summer of 1971, Yale undergraduate Mark Tykocinski, who was studying philosophy at the time, wandered into a building on the campus of Boston's Harvard School of Public Health and stumbled upon the lab of famed cardiologist Bernard Lown. The door was open, so he walked in, introduced himself, and asked to work in the lab. That chance meeting with Lown, developer of the cardiac defibrillator, led to three consecutive summers working on special projects that gave the young protégé his first scientific publication as a student.
Working for Lown sealed his destiny, says Tykocinski, while "a very fateful dinner" at his sister's apartment put his career path in perspective. "Mark," she asked, "what are you going to do with a philosophy major? ... Did you ever think about going to medical school?" In his second year at Yale, he shifted his focus towards medicine and graduated with a biology degree.
Today Tykocinski is the Simon Flexner Professor and chair of the Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. With $37.7 million from the National Institutes of Health in 2006, Tykocinski's is the highest NIH-funded pathology department. He is arguably among the most influential figures in American pathology, serving both as president of the American Society for Investigative Pathology and president-elect of the Association of Pathology Chairs (APC).
"Dr. Tykocinski leads the premier academic pathology department in the country, and is himself one of the leading chairs of pathology," says APC president James Crawford, professor and chair of the Department of Pathology, Immunology, and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville. "He's one of the hardest working people I've ever met."
Tykocinski was born and raised in Lakewood, NJ, the son of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the US in 1950. His father, liberated by American troops from the Buchenwald concentration camp, was "a great American patriot" who eventually earned a living as a building contractor, he says. His mother, a homemaker, died when he was 16. That legacy, he says, endowed him with an appreciation of the "fragility of anyone's status" in society and the sense that, with hard work, people in this country can achieve great things.
His career is a testament to the American work ethic. "Nothing was handed to me, not even guidance, in terms of how one navigates the world of academia and things like that. Those are all things that I had to learn along the way," he says.
After graduating magna cum laude from Yale, Tykocinski earned a medical degree from New York University (NYU). In another serendipitous journey while in medical school, he shifted course again: This time he would eventually be immersed in the worlds of immunology and experimental pathology.
During his fourth year, Tykocinski had a four-month block of elective time to do research. He'd heard of a very interesting researcher named Nussenzweig, but when he arrived at Nussenzweig's offices to inquire about working in his lab, he found a locked door and a sign that said out of the country. "So I started walking down the hallway ... and then I see the sign that says Michael Lamm, who'd given one of our lectures, so I go in and talk to him, and my whole life turned around over that one stop ...."
Lamm, who pioneered the field of secretory immunity, recalls that first meeting: "He was obviously intelligent and highly motivated. It was soon apparent that he was extremely bright, industrious, and possessed of a quick mind that was capable of assimilating and applying new information rapidly. I was impressed."
After med school, Tykocinski completed an internship in internal medicine at New York's Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. He then decided to switch to residency training in anatomic pathology at NYU with Lamm as his mentor. Following that was a fellowship in immunogenetics at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. After Lamm left NYU to chair the pathology department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, he recruited Tykocinski, who founded and served as director of that institution's gene therapy facility. In 1998, he left for Philadelphia.
The fact that Penn is located in a major life sciences hub, surrounded by Big Pharma, biotech, and other health science centers is, in Tykocinski's view, a recruiting advantage. "I've never viewed the other institutions in the region as competitors," he says. "Rather, I think there's more to be gained by teaming up with each other to strengthen the region."
Penn's pathology department has spawned key discoveries over the years. Of note are Lasker Award-winner Peter Nowell's finding of a genetic basis for cancer, ultimately leading to the development of Gleevec (imatinib), and Mark Greene's pioneering work on the molecular processes underlying breast cancer, leading to the development of Herceptin (trastuzumab).
Tykocinski's own research focuses on designing and expressing novel fusion proteins to modulate the body's immune system, inhibit pathogenic immune responses, or jump-start antitumor immune responses.
Looking ahead, he envisions a day, perhaps a decade away, when the silos separating pathology and radiology will fall away as histopathologic tissue diagnostics and radiologic imaging tools become increasingly powerful and actually begin to converge. The work of two faculty members using "virtual biopsies" to detect cancer provides a glimpse into what may be possible. Tykocinski also sees pathology playing a pivotal role as genetics enables physicians to tailor treatments to individual patients. In addition, he predicts a broader movement toward systems biology and what he calls systems pathobiology - how different pathways interact in time and space to generate disease.
In one futuristic experimental line, the department's Institute for Medicine and Engineering and the School of Design's architecture department have been collaborating in an imaginative and highly interdisciplinary way to develop entirely new ways of visualizing cells and tissues across space and time. As Tykocinski observes, architects have incredible tools for examining the design of structures that could benefit medicine, while biology boasts a vast array of structures that could enrich the field of architectural design. It's all very conceptual, "but it really has the seeds of generating new ways of thinking," he says, "so pathology is not your father's pathology anymore."
As for the young philosophy major who stumbled upon his career, he's now poised to influence pathology's direction on a national scale. "People instinctively respond to Mark, and he knows how to get diverse colleagues to work together toward common goals," Lamm says. "He has proved to be a superb and visionary leader."