Ethical Dilemmas

Weissman Bio

History of Liposome Company

Renaissance Man

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This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 21, 1998. All rights reserved.

Liposome's Literary Founder

Thirty years ago Gerald Weissman was among the first to form liposomes, which he describes as "small fatty vesicles, made in the laboratory from off-the-shelf chemicals." The process, he writes, is "an operation which approaches magic, and which, each time I perform it, carries with it faint intimations of the Book of Genesis."

The Liposome Company started up in Princeton to explore liposome-based therapies, and after a rocky start it is finally attaining success. Its leading product, Abelcet, helps those whose immune systems are compromised by cancer therapy, bone marrow transplants, or AIDs. Its first-line therapy for metastatic breast cancer, Evacet, is finishing Phase II clinical trials.

But only insiders realize that Weissman, now a professor at New York University Medical School, is indeed the founder of the company at 1 Research Way. He comes to Encore Books at Princeton Shopping Center on Tuesday, October 27, at 7 p.m., to speak and sign his new volume of elegantly lucid essays, "Darwin's Audubon: Science and the Liberal Imagination" (Plenum, $28.95). A world-class scientist who is also deeply rooted in the worlds of visual arts, music, and literature, Gerald Weissman raises one ethical dilemma after another, questioning what affects us all and what impinges on his personal integrity.

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Ethical Dilemmas

In his essay "Auden and the Liposome" Weissman acknowledges the dilemma of making lifesaving discoveries. "The playthings of the lab have suddenly become capable of arousing not only esthetic joy, but moral qualms as well," he writes, referring to the genetic engineering controversies that are furrowing so many brows. (On the same night that he does the book signing, Princeton University continues its lecture series on cloning at Richardson Auditorium.) "It may be scientific hubris to worry about the small contribution of liposomes to the game of genetic roulette," he admits.

But perhaps scientists are not the ones supposed to do the worrying. "Those lucky enough to be supported on the playing fields of science should worry hard -- before, during, and after the game -- but the rules of our sport, of science, are not written in the language of our guilt. The language which we need to remind us of that guilt remains the language of the artist, the poet, the philosopher, and -- ultimately -- the citizen."

And he quotes the W. H. Auden poem, "After Reading A Child's Guide to Modern Physics," regarding scientific research:

This passion of our kind For the process of finding out Is a fact one can hardly doubt But I would rejoice in it more If I knew more clearly what We wanted the knowledge for...

On a personal level, Weissman says now that it would have been a conflict of interest to take an active part in liposome research while simultaneously recommending those products to his patients. "I gave up all liposome research in my lab," says Weissman in a telephone interview. "I don't think it is appropriate to make a big deal about the discovery." (Even so, when asked what accomplishment makes him the most proud, he refers to the CD-ROM version of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED credits Weissman with coining the word "liposome.")

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Weissman Bio

The son of a Viennese doctor, he came to the U.S. in 1938, at the age of eight. He went to Columbia, where he edited the humor magazine and soaked up culture, and then to the New York University College of Medicine where he now teaches, directs the division of rheumatology, and is an attending physician at Tisch and Bellevue hospitals. At age 68 he is still doing exciting research; on the day of the phone interview he was finishing a paper on how aspirin works for the prestigious journal Nature.

His most important research began in the mid 1960s when he spent a summer in England, with Alec Bangham, the first developer of liposomes. These microsocopic, biodegradable, manmade spheres can now be engineered to contain drugs, enzymes, or other biologically-active macromolecules. But for nearly 20 years they were unstable and expensive to produce.

The Liposome Company was among the first firms to be dedicated to exploring uses for these lipids. In 1981 Weissman installed Marc J. Ostro, a researcher from his own lab, as the first employee and then he took a back seat on the scientific advisory board. The late Edward "Jack" C. Whitehead (heir to the Technicon fortune) was one of three initial partners. Weissman says he met Whitehead on the way home from Moscow when their plane was grounded in Copenhagen, and that Whitehead provided the "business brains" for the endeavor. Mort Collins of DSV Partners, formerly on Nassau Street, later took an investment position and is still on the board.

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History of Liposome Company

The firm went public in 1986, but the stock did not hit double digits until 1995. It climbed to the 20s in 1996, went to the high 20s and may have been overvalued in 1997, but cratered that year when clinical trials for one of its most promising products, Ventis, failed. The stock dropped 61 percent and is back to the single digits, but the firm had a positive cash flow in the second quarter of 1998.

"The promise of the liposomes is that we will be able to take some drugs, which in some cases were very, very toxic, and make them less toxic but equally effective. And take drugs not effective enough and target them and make them more efficient," says Charles Baker, the former Bristol-Myers Squibb executive who has been CEO since 1989. "That promise is being fulfilled now."

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Renaissance Man

Though the term "Renaissance man" is often used in error, Weissman is truly a Renaissance man. His stylish and provocative essays have been published in such prestigious journals as the New Yorker, the New Republic, and the New York Times Book Review, and he is being lauded as the successor to the late great medical writer Lewis Thomas.

Weissman draws together science, architecture, city life, visual art, music, and poetry -- all to comment, mordantly and passionately, on such varied problems as evolution, bag ladies, holocaust science, war, reductionist science, abortion, scientific fraud, and religion -- based on the lives of such personalities as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Marie Curie, William Carlos Williams, Christopher Columbus, Robert Ballard, le Corbusier, and Gustav Courbet.

In a bucolic essay about Woods Hole, the summer mecca for scientists on Cape Cod, he relates Vivaldi to the mechanistic school of biology advocated by eminent scientist Jacques Loeb. In another Woods Hole-based essay, "Gertrude Stein and the Ctenophone," he tells how Loeb's thinking affected the work of Gertrude Stein, B.F. Skinner, and William James.

Weissman is an atheist who believes the universe was created by chance, yet he belittles verbal discussion of these ideas as a college bull session. "A lot of very serious scientists believe that there is purpose in the universe," he says. "That thought has generated some of the greatest works of art ever made. But if there is a purpose, I don't think we were meant to know it. No one has ever led an army of men with guns into a village, carrying a flag saying, `Gee, fellas, I'm not sure." Everyone who believes in a creator with a purpose, says Weissman, subconsciously thinks it is better.

"The whole function of science is not to be sure," he insists. "I can't remember what I proved in my lab 20 years ago. Why on earth should I trust somebody in the desert 5,000 years ago who said God came and talked to him?"

Though some say a scientist's best work comes early, at the age of 68 Weissman is still making discoveries. "I think what you learn to do is edit and elaborate. In experimental science, I think 35 to 45 is the peak. In theoretical science, it may be earlier. But there are different levels of science. In clinical and social science, you may need a little bit more of the general view. Don't forget, young scientists make their discoveries in the presence of old critics, who say `prove it to me.' It's a community."

Nevertheless, what must surely be his most important discovery came when he was young. "At the moment, anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 people are alive because of (liposome products)," says Weissman, "and it started with an article I wrote in 1965. I am thrilled by it. Without elaborating the product it wouldn't have happened. It was a group effort."

-- Barbara Figge Fox


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