Medicine: Dr. Hustle

For nearly two decades, Temple University cancer researcher Antonio Giordano has been at the forefront of new discoveries. Why did he have to partner with a fast-food company to make it happen?

That isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.

Biological research is painstaking and incremental, filled with frustrations and blind alleys, and getting a project funded can mean life or death to a scientist’s work. The vast majority of biomedical research gets federal or medical-industry money; foundations and private sources pay for only 10 percent. While virtually all researchers are dependent on funding from a variety of sources, Giordano’s method of openly going after his own financing — as opposed to the quieter, more dignified grant approach — is new. The risk is obvious: If a deep-pockets pharmaceutical company, say, pays for research on a new, potentially lucrative drug, will that research be skewed? To get government and grant funding, researchers must have their work peer-reviewed; privately funded research sometimes operates apart from that openness and rigor. Furthermore, there’s the snob factor; Giordano himself thinks having “Sbarro” on his lab’s letterhead — the Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine is now affiliated with Temple University — hasn’t exactly been a calling card with certain medical societies and peer-review boards.  

In Giordano’s case, though, Sbarro setting him up with no strings attached has helped foster groundbreaking work: Over the years, he has made several important discoveries, including Rb2/p130, a gene that signals cancer at a pre-tumor stage. He has published 240 papers on his work in the fields of cell cycles, gene therapy, and the genetics of cancer. He serves on the editorial boards of a number of professional journals. And his work has earned several grants from the National Institutes of Health — a conventional, prestigious route — the most recent being a $1.68 million award in 2004.       

“Antonio has been a key player in unraveling the genetic mysteries of cancer,” says Raphael Rubin, professor of pathology, anatomy and cell biology at Thomas Jefferson Medical School. Paul Fisher, a well-regarded urological cancer researcher at Columbia, calls Giordano’s work “an important accomplishment.”

Yet over the past 13 years, through a combination of conventional and unconventional sources, Giordano has had to raise $16 million to fund research at the Sbarro Institute. And that suggests a problem apart from where the money comes from — the time Giordano has to put in chasing funding has forced him to become a new sort of biomedical entrepreneur. Increasingly, Giordano is spending his time raising money to guarantee that the post-docs and Ph.D. candidates at the Institute will have the latest biomedical equipment and the financial security to pursue complicated and innovative research. At this point, he limits his scientific participation to mentoring young doctors, suggesting new paths for their research, and reviewing their findings. His own bench work is in the past.  

His fund-raising has created, at any rate, a lively lab. Day to day, the atmosphere in Giordano’s offices at the Sbarro Institute runs more to Fellini than Fermi: Narrow-waisted Ph.D. candidates and post-docs in fashionista black chatter in breakneck Italian while the nonstop espresso machine brews an evil potion that can keep an unsuspecting victim awake for 27 hours straight. Medical and doctoral degrees bump frames with glamour shots of Miss Italian American and Sophia Loren, hip to hip with the beaming Giordano.

Overseeing the lab, however — that wasn’t exactly Giordano’s plan, though he’s philosophical about the way the game is played. “The best science requires risk,” he explains. “But such projects may not be possible to pursue with conventional funding.” Which Giordano recognized early on — hence the Sunday-morning pursuit of Mario Sbarro. “I needed independence to work,” he says. “And I knew that as a very young researcher, without a track record or tenure at a major university, it could be years before I had the chance.”

Conventional funding sources for biomedical research in the United States appear to be drying up. This year, the National Science Foundation budget dropped 1.9 percent, while the National Institutes of Health budget rose a paltry two percent. With catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina and the continuing defense spending in Iraq, the budget projections for 2006 are “bleak,” says Kei Koizumi, an administrator for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Washington, D.C.

And as funds have dipped, competition has increased. Only about 20 percent of government grant applicants will receive awards next year; in 2001, a third of applicants got funding.

That also means funding tends to go to more conventional research, with more predictable results, and the riskier research — the sort of trailblazing work Giordano’s lab was set up to pursue — gets short shrift. Paul Fisher is a cancer research scientist at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York who has chaired peer review panels in the past and recently received a five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute for his work with terminator viruses — organisms that kill cancer cells. He believes his decade-long research wouldn’t receive start-up funding under today’s peer-review methodology. His tip in applying for a grant now is: “Don’t make the reviewer think.” Fisher is only half joking.

“NIH certainly claims that they want innovative, risk-taking research,” says Raphael Rubin. “But judging by the grants awarded, it often doesn’t work out that way.”

All of these factors combine to work against post-docs at the crucial start of their careers. In 1980, the average age at which a researcher received a first grant was 37. Today, the average is 42 — one year younger than Giordano.

Scientists worry that the lack of funds is not only driving young people out of research, but is creating a problem for the future of American science. “It’s an acknowledged fact that the U.S. has lost serious ground to Europe and Asia after years of domination,” says Barry Toiv, spokesman for the Association of American Universities. In such a climate, Toiv adds, “Alternative resources for money, such as public or private foundations, become that much more important.”

“Do people pay attention to where you get your money? Sure they do,” says Fisher. “But what really matters in science is the test of time. Are your experiments repeatable? Are they useful to other researchers? Will they last?”

He pauses.

“In Antonio’s case, in my opinion, the answer is yes.”