The saga of Jan Vilcek, professor of microbiology at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, reads like what John le Carré might have written after seeing a Frank Capra film:
Brilliant medical researcher escapes Communist Czechoslovakia at the height of the cold war and flees to New York, where he discovers the biological basis for the blockbuster anti-inflammatory drug Remicade, and uses most of his fortune to start a foundation highlighting the contributions of immigrants to his adopted country. (The co-founder is his wife, the art historian Marica Vilcek.) For his discoveries and his philanthropy, Dr. Vilcek, now 80,received a 2013 National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama.
We spoke for two hours at his N.Y.U. offices and later by telephone. An edited and condensed version of the conversations follows.
Did you always want to do medical research?
In high school, I thought about journalism. But that really wasn’t an option for someone who was not a believing Communist. The other things I might have considered — law or business — they didn’t exist under Communism. So more or less by exclusion, I did what my parents wanted — become a doctor. My mother was a doctor.
Now it happened that during medical school, I volunteered for a small microbiology research project. As I worked on it, I became fascinated by research. Within a few weeks, I knew this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.
What made you defect?
It was not unusual, especially with professional people, to think of defecting. In fact, at my institute [the Institute of Virology in Bratislava], I was not the first. Perhaps because I had already published in the West, and perhaps because of some personal chutzpah, I had confidence I would find employment once I got out.
The problem was to get yourself to a location where you could defect. For any external travel, you needed official permission. Generally, they didn’t permit family members to travel together. That’s how they ensured your return. My wife, Marica, felt strongly we should try to leave. Her brother had defected some years earlier while on a tour of Egypt. Whenever we discussed it, it seemed unlikely that the authorities would ever allow us to go abroad together.
Then, in October of 1964, came an unexpected invitation from a scientist in Vienna to visit for a weekend. To our surprise, we both were given travel permits. Once we had that, we knew we would not come back. So we packed for a weekend — two suitcases. We lived with Marica’s father, and to protect him we told him nothing. My own parents we spoke to. It was difficult — I was their only son. They said right away: “Go! You’ll have a better future than here.”
Just before our departure, I was at work and somebody said, “You have a phone call from Vienna.” It was very unusual to get a call from a Western country, especially at the workplace. I thought, “Oh my God, he’s canceling!” Instead our host said, “I have opera tickets — be sure to bring your tuxedo!”
Was that a code for something?
No. He had no idea of our plans. Our host had tickets for “The Magic Flute.”
We stayed a couple of weeks in the country and eventually traveled onto Germany, where we applied for refugee status. On Feb. 5 of the following year we landed in New York, where I had accepted an offer from N.Y.U. I met with the chairman of the microbiology department and asked to see the laboratory I was to work in. And he showed me this place with empty walls.
“How am I supposed to do any science here?” I asked.
“This is America,” he said. “You sit down and write this thing called ‘grant applications.’ ”
It took years to get adjusted. Even though we both spoke English, understanding accents was difficult. We could communicate, but we often didn’t know what people were talking about. And there were matters of social interaction that were puzzling — a cocktail party. We’d never been to a cocktail party. I liked the informality of American life, though. It was very refreshing.
How did Remicade happen?
At N.Y.U., I got those grants and did interferon research. We contributed to the first interferon marketed for human use.
Through interferon, I came to know Michael Wall, who in the early 1980s founded this biotech company, Centocor. He was interested in some of the basic immunological research we were doing, especially on cytokines, which are hormonelike proteins that play a role in regulating the immune response. So, in 1984, N.Y.U. signed a broad agreement with Centocor licensing the rights to monoclonal antibodies to cytokines that might be discovered in our lab.
At my lab, we worked on many things. After about four years of this contract, with my colleague Junming Le, we’d made an antibody to the cytokine TNF, which was suspected to play a role in sepsis and some autoimmune conditions.
Together with Centocor, we did all kinds of different testing of the antibody on people and animals, not all of it successful. The big breakthrough came around 1991, when two British rheumatologists used it on a handful of patients with rheumatoid arthritis. These patients had been treated with everything under the sun and were in very bad shape. And they immediately got better!
Next, a physician in Holland tried it in a patient with Crohn’s disease. Again, the results were dramatic. In 1998, Remicade was approved for Crohn’s.
After that came F.D.A. approval for about half a dozen inflammatory conditions — rheumatoid-arthritis, ulcerative colitis, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriasis.
The Vilcek Foundation, how did it get started?
Well, suddenly quite unexpectedly, we found ourselves in a situation where we had — um, more means than we could reasonably spend to have a comfortable life. So my wife and I started to think, “Maybe we should start a foundation?” We first thought we would spend small amounts of money for medical research. But then we realized we could never compete with Howard Hughes or the Gates Foundation.
So we needed to come up with a niche that is a little more unique. That’s when we decided: “Why don’t we combine our backgrounds in biomedical research and the arts? We are immigrants. Let’s raise public awareness about the contribution of immigrants to biomedical science and the arts.”
Did you see negative feelings toward immigrants that you wanted to combat?
Not when we first thought of this — that was in the year 2000. But the next year was the attack on the World Trade Center, and then these bad feelings developed and it did bother us. We wanted to point out the accomplishments that immigrants have made to the United States. We hoped we could counteract some of the negative feelings.
From my inventor’s share of Remicade, I gave a percentage of future royalties to the foundation. We had no idea that it — and the two other similar drugs — would become the highest revenue-generating drugs in the world. Each brings in about $8 billion annually.
If you’d known, would you have given the foundation less of a share?
[Laughs.] No, I would have given up more.