Dario Altieri’s golden ticket: How a serendipitous discovery created a lifelong passion

Dario Altieri

Dario Altieri

By Alyssa Hurst

When Dario Altieri left Milan to continue his educational journey in America, he was immediately struck by the scientific community. The freedom of working in a lab drove him to a career in cancer research, which he deems “the best job one can hope for.” Today, he is CEO of The Wistar Institute, and continues to make an impact in the world of medical research.

You’re originally from Milan. What brought you to the United States?

Altieri: I came to the U.S. for training after my degree. I came in 1987. A long time — 30 years in fact. And when I landed in California, in San Diego, the plan was to stay two years. I stayed nine and from that moment on I was sold, I think.

What was that transition like, and what did you like enough to stay past your plan?

Altieri: It was fantastic. It was absolutely fantastic. It was a completely different culture from the way medicine and science was done in — I don’t know about Europe — but certainly in Italy. My fellowship was a research fellowship and my original training is in clinical and experimental hematology. This was an extension of the laboratory component of that. … It was breathtaking — the sense of freedom and the opportunity to pursue your own curiosity. Almost the lack of hierarchy. Everything together as a package was so different compared to the lifestyle and the academic medicine and research that I was used to.

Did you always want to be a scientist? Even as a little kid?

Altieri: No. I really had no idea what I wanted to do or be when I was a little kid. Certainly I wanted to play a lot of soccer when I was a little kid, that’s for sure. It really clicked starting in medical school. I was fascinated by the lab and the challenges and the asking questions. It was a lot of fun and I got hooked. I’m 57 now, and I guess I’m still hooked.

Dario AltieriYou’re really passionate about working in a lab. What is it that you love so much about it?

Altieri: It’s the best job that one can hope for. I have to caution — right now I don’t physically work in the lab anymore. Actually, when I walk in the lab, everyone else walks about because everybody thinks I’m such a danger now if I were to try an experiment. It’s the best job in the world. What I try to remind the folks in my lab of is, it’s not really a job; it’s an adventure. Every day is different. You work on a hypothesis, you work on a model, but really when things become a lot of fun is when you do the experiment and it turns out that you’re completely wrong. Things don’t fit the way you thought they would fit. It’s the outliers that really get you thinking. Biomedical research is extraordinarily complex. Cancer research, in particular, is very complex. That gives you an emotional and intellectual kick that I just think is unique.

Why did you decide to go into cancer research in particular?

Altieri: I wish I could say that this was a very thoughtful and carefully planned decision — that it was a mission. Unfortunately, or fortunately, none of that is actually what happened. I think, as often happens in life, it was almost a little bit of serendipity. The reason was, after I left San Diego, I took a job at Yale in the medical school. At that time, we were very interested in cardiovascular research, believe it or not — vascular biology. We were looking for a gene that we thought was very important in regulating vascular responses … and we stumble across something that was a gene that had nothing to do with what we were actually looking for.

But instead of throwing everything in the trash and starting over, we did one experiment and it turned out the molecule we were interested in, that we had just isolated, was only expressed in cancer. It was not expressed in normal tissues. And it could not have been a coincidence. Virtually every type of cancer we looked at expressed a lot of this particular protein, and none of the normal human tissues had it. And so we had stumbled across, apparently, something that tumors exploit. And one experiment leads to the next and to the next and to the next, and the gene turned out to be surviving — the molecule that we had identified and discovered. And it’s one of the most important cancer genes today — 20 years after the original description. So that was it. That was my entrance ticket to the field of cancer research.

We learned a lot. We certainly learned a lot. I’m very proud to say the field has progressed. There are over 6,500 citations in the literature. There are clinical trials and news of targets surviving, small molecule approaches and biomarkers for early detection of cancer. So it’s been an amazing journey. From a biology standpoint, it’s like peeling an onion. We think we solved the pathway, but behind it there is always something new.

As you mentioned, you’re no longer working in the lab. What has the transition to CEO been like and do you still find time to get into the lab?

Altieri: Absolutely. My office is next door to my lab. I certainly didn’t move downstairs into what used to be called the “executive suite” at Wistar. I meet with the folks working in my group every day, and we keep in touch every hour, day or night by email or Skype when I’m not around. I have to tell you, the CEO thing is a lot of fun and we are making good progress. But, if you’re asking me what gets me out of bed in the morning, that is still it.

I heard you like to go to Eagles’ games…

Altieri: Wait, wait, wait — I went to one. I’m still learning how the whole thing works compared to soccer.

What is the main difference you see between American fans and European fans?

Altieri: Everybody had warned me that Eagles fans are loud a lot and could be annoying. But in fact, none of that was true. It was a great, friendly day. Unfortunately, the Eagles lost, but it was a great day. Growing up in Europe, if you don’t like soccer, there is something wrong with you. You’re ostracized, you make no friends, your parents get worried that there is something fundamentally wrong. But this was a much better experience. It was very, in a way — don’t laugh — but it was more intimate: very committed, very passionate, but very civil. I remember times when I was a kid going to a soccer game of A.C. Milan. Often times, it would end up with riots and brawls with fans of the other teams. So this was a lot of fun. We had a blast.

About The Human Element:

The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email ahurst@smartceo.com.