Medical students in communist Czechoslovakia in the early 1950s were taught that Mendelian genetics was “bourgeois pseudoscience”. The theory of heredity that toed the party line came from Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko: Stalin championed his idea that acquired traits could be inherited. Jan Vilcek was one of several students of the time who saw through this nonsense, but kept quiet. The budding virologist already had two decades of experience of staying under the authoritarian radar — a frustration that would later prompt him to break free in spectacular fashion.
In Love and Science, Vilcek traces that tumultuous, ultimately triumphant journey. He takes us from his birth in 1933, to Jewish parents in Bratislava (in what is now Slovakia), to his current position of president and co-founder, with his art-historian wife Marica, of the Vilcek Foundation in New York City. This multimillion-dollar philanthropic enterprise uses Vilcek’s royalties from the autoimmune drug Remicade (infliximab) to honor the contribution of immigrant scientists and artists to US society.
Vilcek begins with how he discovered the drug. He cut his research teeth on interferons — proteins produced in response to infection — at the Bratislava Institute of Virology in the early 1960s. But it was in 1988 at New York University’s School of Medicine that the main event occurred: the development of a monoclonal antibody against the inflammation-inducing molecule tumour necrosis factor (TNF). As Vilcek and others revealed, people with rheumatoid arthritis had high levels of TNF. Remicade was the first TNF-blocking agent approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, initially for treating Crohn’s disease, in 1998. Today, it is used against multiple autoimmune conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis, and remains one of the world’s five top-selling prescription drugs.