Thank you, Jan, for the kind remarks – you make me feel as though I am a prize winner myself. And indeed I am, because I am honored to have been chosen by Marica and you to introduce the distinguished winner of the Vilcek Foundation 2008 Prize for Biomedical Research.
In only its 3rd year, the Vilcek Foundation has set a standard for excellence for awards in the sciences and the arts. But the Foundation’s special gift is its recognition that American culture owes an enormous debt to the immigrants who have come here to make new lives.
To those in this room, what I have just said is not news: Everyone with any sanity in this great city knows how much we owe to immigrants. But when Marica and Jan envisioned this wonderful statement of our collective gratitude for the contributions of immigrants, they could not have imagined the cynical nightly bombast of Lou Dobbs, much less the depressing efforts by all but perhaps 2 Republicans running for their party’s nomination to outdo the others in anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Pandering to the worst instincts in our citizenry, these individuals conveniently overlook what we in this room celebrate tonight. In fact, the only good thing I can say about the roster of Republican candidates – of whom only 3 believed in Darwin – is that the last man standing was one of the brave Senators who tried to fashion an across-the-aisle, legislative compromise that honored the value of immigrants to America.
Now before turning to my role tonight as the person who introduces the winner of the Vilcek Prize in Biomedicine, I propose to make two other brief observations about the beauty of the Prize and the Foundation that created it.
While everyone will salute the Foundation’s recognition of immigrants, I see a second pioneering element: the linkage of art and science within a single Foundation. Thanks to the failings of our education system, we continue to treat science as if it operates outside of culture. But art and science are similarly creative and socially impactful endeavors that heavily influence our culture.
Harold Varmus, who is with us tonight and who is surely known to many of you as our Nobel Prize-winning President of Memorial Sloan Kettering, is an example of what should exist in great numbers among our brightest young people: His first degrees – from Amherst and Harvard – were in English literature. But he then shifted into medical science, where he did iconic research. And today, he invests in theater projects and surely sees his science as part of one culture embracing the arts.
Many young people – even those with the brilliance and talent of Harold Varmus – are driven from the pursuit of science because their schools fail to give them the experience of scientific wonder and achievement. And while scientists are respected, they are too often regarded as outside the mainstream in much of what passes for American culture.
This has badly depressed the number of native children who go into science. So thank goodness for the immigrants among us who continue to make America’s science the best in the world.
This evening, while we mentally re-dedicate ourselves to reforming our education system, we get to honor yet another principle that links science and the arts: In a world that has been riven for centuries by political and religious conflict, the arts and the sciences have been forever without borders. This is what the Vilcek Foundation recognized when it created these prizes. And our honoree tonight is a magnificent exemplar of the millions of immigrants who have come to our shores to pursue lives of inquiry, who have succeeded here, and who – to their great credit – have not forgotten their homelands.
Inder Verma grew up in India and completed a master’s degree from Lucknow University. But unlike the thousands of bright Indians who come to our universities to take Ph.D.s – most frequently in engineering – Inder traveled first to Israel where he was awarded a Ph.D. in life science by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehoveth.
It was only then that he arrived on our shores: to become a post-doc in the M.I.T. laboratory of one of science’s leading figures, Nobel laureate David Baltimore.
Too many post-docs don’t make it in academia. Reaching their late 30s or even early 40s, some go to industry, and some go into other professions: patent law, investment banking, and so on. Finally, some get recruited to Europe for jobs they cannot find here…or they discover that they will thrive by going back to their home country and building the capacity there.
These are all estimable outcomes for young scientists. But to the great good fortune of the United States, many of the best and brightest young immigrants never leave basic research, never leave our shores, and, occasionally, do truly spectacular work here.
Inder Verma wasn’t waiting until his late 30s to figure out whether a faculty research position awaited him. He was exceptional from the beginning.
To make that point, David Baltimore, who wanted to be with us tonight but who had prior commitments in Europe, wrote a brief statement:
“Inder,” he wrote, “is a rare and wonderful scientist, deserving of honors whether for immigrants or just for terrific work.
“He joined me to work on the vesicular stomatitis virus but before he arrived, we discovered the reverse transcriptase. This repositioned him into the retrovirus field, and the rest is history. He did key biochemistry with me but has gone on to develop into a protean scientist, contributing to gene therapy, transcriptional control, cancer and other fields. It makes an old man proud to have such children.”
From David’s words, you get a flavor – even if you’re not a scientist – of the power of Inder Verma’s research. But now I will give you a clue to the power of his mind:
Inder had completed his post-doc with David and was recruited for a faculty position at the prestigious Salk Institute in San Diego not in his late 30s but at the ripe old age of … 26!
Perhaps his most seminal early achievement was to create what we call a “vector” to deliver genes into cells that are misbehaving. For the nonscientists in the room, consider a cancer cell that is proliferating because one or more of its genes have incorrect chemical sequences. What if we could insert properly functioning genes into that cell to repair it?
This work is called gene therapy and one tough hurdle was: How do you get a new and properly functioning gene into a cell?
Ironically, the most adept intruders into our cells – the master break-in artists – are viruses … no surprise, that’s how they do their dirty work. But what if you could replace the viruses own genes with a healthy human sequence – or even a mini-repair-kit of a gene?
In Inder’s case, he and his team re-engineered a virus to make it not merely harmless but potentially benevolent. In the scientific world, this is called designing a vector to get new instructions into a cell.
The cells aren’t live in a sick person’s body. That might be dangerous. Rather, the cells have been taken from the body, placed in a test tube, and get corrected right there. Once they start producing the normal protein, they can be returned to the body in force.
Since that seminal invention, Inder and his team have gone on to work on specific genes, none more important than BRCA1 and BRCA2, which have become implicated in a large percentage of familial breast cancer. But throughout the decades, no matter how busy Inder has been in his southern California laboratory, he has traveled back to India – literally, once a year – to do what he can to build capacity there.
Because he epitomizes the immigrant scientists who have enriched our nation, because his research has seminally advanced science in service of society, because he has set a standard for remembering and helping his homeland, and because he has exemplified the eternal verity that science thrives without borders, Jan will award him the 2008 Vilcek Foundation Price for Biomedical Research.
Ellis Rubinstein, March 26, 2008