Dr. Bruce Stillman, President of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Transcribed By Valentina Cordero
Dr. Bruce Stillman came to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1979 from Australia. He assumed the presidency in 2003.
Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): Please tell us about the important and seminal work that you are doing here at the laboratory.
Dr. Bruce Stillman, President of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (BS): Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory focuses on four areas of science: cancer, neuroscience, plant biology, and quantitative biology, which is the integration of mathematics and computer science in analyzing large data. Our main area of research is cancer; we’re a National Cancer Institute designated cancer center. And we’ve got some very exciting programs on cancer therapeutics: discovering new targets for cancer therapy, and then taking that into the clinic.
PR: Are we making progress in battling cancer?
BS: The biggest problem with cancer is that it’s not just one disease; it’s many, many different diseases even in one tissue organ, such as breast cancer. There are many different types of breast cancer. Pathologists have known this for a long time, but with the sequencing of the human genome we now know the underlying genetics of cancer, and we can identify different subtypes. So the name of the game now is to identify precision therapies that are linked to the different genetics. And that is working very well. Cancer death rates have come down very, very significantly, not in all cancers, but in many cancers.
PR:Which particular ones?
BS: Well the best cancers are leukemia, but also breast cancer, the death rates are coming down in that, and also colon cancer. In part that’s due to early diagnosis. The worst cancers are pancreas cancer, malignant melanoma, and other cancers such as ovarian cancer that can’t be detected very early. Patients come in with cancer at a late stage, and they’re very difficult to treat. However, the new targeting of drugs to specific drug targets that are linked to the genetics of cancer is having a big impact. I think that it will have a big impact in the next 10 years.
PR: So we know the tragic diagnosis of pancreatic and ovarian cancer, and as you said, they’re silent killers. Have we made any progress in the area of pancreatic cancer, for example?
BS: Unfortunately not much. Pancreas cancer is one of the most difficult, mainly because it is very difficult to do early diagnosis. We are working on developing what are called biomarkers, that is, molecular signatures of cancer that might be circulating in the blood. We are also working on new therapeutics for pancreas cancer, but it is still one of the most untreatable cancers that one can get. And unfortunately it is increasing in numbers.
PR: Why? Is there any particular reason?
BS: We don’t know why. I think it is partially because the U.S. population is aging significantly. That and other gastro-intestinal cancers, such as esophageal cancer, are increasing, not dramatically, but in significant numbers that it’s of concern. So there is a major effort here on pancreas cancer in collaboration with a Long Island foundation called the Lustgarten Foundation, which was established specifically to address pancreas cancer.
PR: Do you collaborate with other institutions? For example, Sloan Kettering?
BS: Yes, we collaborate with a lot of clinical centers. In fact we have collaborations with about 40 clinical centers worldwide. In pancreas cancer we have a clinical collaboration with a consortium that involves John Hopkins University, Sloan Kettering, Dana Farber in Boston. That clinical consortium focuses in on developing therapies out of research down at Cold Spring Harbor, MIT and John Hopkins. So we do a lot of collaborations. One of our faculty is a clinician who also is treating patients at Sloan Kettering.
PR: The Lab here is not strictly a lab in Cold Spring only. You have a facility in China? And you have something in Harlem, Manhattan? Can you elaborate a little on that.
BS: Cold Spring Harbor is not just a research institution. We are 123 years old, and we were started really as an education institution in teaching science to people who wanted to learn about science. So a large program that we have is in science education. And the sites that are remote from Cold Spring Harbor, such as the site in China but also the one in New York City are really focused on Science Education. In China we have a conference center, where we host scientific meetings and some courses. That’s for the Asia-Pacific region. Here, at Cold Spring Harbor, we have a large conference center that brings over about 10,000 scientists to Cold Spring Harbor each year to attend meetings and courses. The one in New York City is a small center that was done in collaboration with the Department of Education. And we have in a school, the John S. Roberts School in East Harlem, we have a science teaching laboratory where we train teachers and students from the city school system.
PR: Of all the honors that have been bestowed upon you personally, as well as the Lab, what are you the proudest of? What’s the most meaningful for you?
BS: Actually I think the most meaningful for me is actually being the president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. It is a really remarkable institution, it has had some amazing people, as my predecessors including James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for DNA. The science that’s gone on here and the impact of our science education is, I think, second to no other institution in the United States.
PR: I want to dwell for a moment on women in science and women in the lab. There was a very famous scientist here, Dr. Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize as well, and she did her work here at the lab. Can you tell us a little bit about her and other women that you have here in the lab?
BS: Barbara was one of eight Nobel Laureates that have worked at Cold Spring Harbor. She was here from 1941 until her death in the early 90s. She worked in the lab every day, almost up until the day she died. She was a remarkable lady. In fact my laboratory was next to hers for a long time. And she really was very, very insightful. In fact, I think she was probably one of the three greatest geneticists that have ever lived, the others being Thomas Hunt Morgan, from Columbia University, and Gregor Mendel, who started the whole field. Barbara had an enormous impact in multiple fields and she could have won multiple Nobel Prizes for what she did, but her work that she won the Noble Prize for was done in 1940s, and we’re only now really understanding what she knew back in the 1940s. Here we have other women on our faculty. In fact our recent dean of our graduate school is a woman who’s a structural biologist, who works on determining the three-dimensional structures of proteins. We have other women who work on cancer, in plant biology and in neuroscience.
PR: So there is a place for women? It’s a haven.
BS: There’s a place for women in science. About 50 percent of our graduate students and over 50 percent of the people that come here to attend our meetings now are women. There’s a lot of women going into science. One of the difficult things though is making the transition from the training period, which is undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral studies, making that transition to become faculty. And there’s a big drop-off for women at the level. And there are a lot of reasons for it. But I think one of the big challenges for institutions is how to make it easier for women to be scientists, but also to have family and other things. So we have an on-site childcare center, which makes it a lot easier for, not only women faculty, but for post-docs and students [who] have children [here].
PR: What prompted you to come from Australia to the United States?
BS: Well, Cold Spring Harbor [Laboratory], among scientists, is a really truly very famous place. I was a graduate student in Australia. I was working on some science related to cancer. I wanted to go and get some overseas experience. I looked around and there were really only two places that I thought about going. One of them was Cold Spring Harbor. The other one was actually in Sweden where I had accepted a job there. But I came to Cold Spring Harbor because it gives young scientists the freedom to do what they want to do. And I had that freedom. And things just took off so well that I was offered a faculty position here and then grew through the ranks, and I am fortunate to be head of it. And I think the other reason is that Cold Spring Harbor does have a very big impact, particularly through our education programs — that’s one of the things I think is most unique about Cold Spring Harbor. #