Summer 2018

Staying Focused

Now a leader in cancer immunotherapy, Ira Pastan still has his Tufts microscope.

By Courtney Hollands

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When Ira Pastan, A53, M57, started a job at the National Institutes of Health in 1959, he set his student microscope on a shelf and planned to stay for two years. Almost six decades later, Pastan is still there—he’s now a leader in cancer immunotherapy and co-chief of the Center for Cancer Research’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the NIH’s National Cancer Institute—and so is the microscope, a treasured reminder of his training. Pastan’s recent work involves recombinant immunotoxins, chimeric molecules created by attaching part of an antibody to part of a bacterial toxin. The result is a cancer-fighting tag team: The antibody leads the molecule to a cancer cell so the toxin can kill it. Two of these immunotoxins are currently in clinical trials—one to treat refractory hairy cell leukemia (and possibly other leukemias), and one that targets mesothelin, a protein Pastan’s lab discovered 15 years ago that’s expressed in many cancers. “I’m like a kid with a chemistry set,” he said about his lengthy career. “Now that we’re getting positive results in treating diseases, I really just want to keep doing it.”

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