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Geneticist Testa Chosen for Fox Chase Cancer Center's New Carol and Kenneth E. Weg Chair in Human Genetics

PHILADELPHIA (March 10, 2000) -- Dr. Joseph R. Testa of Churchville, Pa., a cancer geneticist who directs the human genetics program at Fox Chase Cancer Center, has been chosen to fill the Center's new Carol and Kenneth E. Weg Chair in Human Genetics. The Wegs, who live in Princeton, N.J., endowed the chair with a $1.5 million gift to the Center's $38 million campaign for its comprehensive Research Institute for Cancer Prevention, housed in the new Prevention Pavilion that just opened on the Fox Chase campus.

A member of the Fox Chase board of directors, Kenneth Weg is vice chairman of Bristol-Myers Squibb Company. He also serves as executive vice president of the pharmaceutical firm and as a member of its board of directors.

In announcing the first occupant of the Carol and Kenneth E. Weg Chair, Fox Chase president Dr. Robert C. Young said that Testa "has made major contributions to our understanding of the biology and clinical implications of genetic alterations in malignant mesothelioma."

An uncommon but virulent form of lung cancer, mesothelioma strikes construction workers and others exposed to loose asbestos. The cancer usually starts in the lining (mesothelium) of the chest cavity and lungs, but it can spread aggressively to the lining of the abdomen and to other organs.

Although no one has yet determined exactly how much asbestos exposure is necessary to cause mesothelioma, Testa's laboratory research is revealing the various cancerous changes that occur in affected cells. This knowledge may lead to earlier detection and also help improve treatment and prevention.

Recently, the Ramazzini Institute for Occupational and Environmental Health Research presented Testa with its 1999 Irving J. Selikoff Award for Cancer Research, named for the pioneer in occupational and environmental health. The award ceremony honored Testa for "outstanding contributions in understanding the origins of mesothelioma" during a December 3 luncheon and forum at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Testa uses an array of techniques to examine the genetic alterations produced in the formation of mesothelioma. This kind of research may show how normal cells become cancer cells and provide clues about how to halt this process at the molecular level.

Finding that mesothelioma cells have lost some basic genetic material, Testa has pinpointed missing segments on seven different chromosomes-the DNA-packed structures that carry all the genes in a cell. In two of these chromosomes, he has identified genes that are missing or fail to function in mesothelioma cells. His research team is working to identify the affected genes in the five other damaged chromosomes.

All appear to be "anticancer" or tumor-suppressor genes-genes that normally act to suppress cancerous growth. This and other genetic actions are carried out by proteins-the body's workhorses-with each gene ordering the cell to make a different protein at the appropriate time. But when a gene is lost or inactive, the protein is not produced. This basic research to target specific genes involved in mesothelioma lays the foundation for future therapies tailored to each patient.

"Identifying the protein each gene produces will provide a blueprint for new drugs," Testa said. "Such drugs would mimic these proteins and might restore the cells' normal function." In effect, this might return cancer cells to normal rather than killing them-the aim of current cancer treatment.

Meanwhile, early detection remains key for those at risk of mesothelioma. The disease is hard to diagnose, so it is crucial for patients to tell their doctors if they have been exposed to loose asbestos and might be among the 3,000 Americans who develop mesothelioma every year.

Testa receives support for his research from the Mesothelioma Fund established in 1992 by Local 14 of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers in partnership with the Insulation Contractors Association. The membership of each organization contributes an equal amount on an ongoing basis for every hour worked in the insulation industry.

As part of Fox Chase's comprehensive research initiative on cancer prevention, Testa and his medical colleagues are launching a new program for Local 14 members at high risk of mesothelioma. Although the program will start with screening, early detection of the cancer is only part of the goal.

The hope is to identify premalignant cells and offer early treatment or preventive therapy that will halt or reverse the progression to mesothelioma. Testa will study cell samples to look for genetic markers and other evidence of cellular changes leading to cancer.

Testa joined Fox Chase in 1989 as director of molecular cytogenetics, the branch of genetics concentrating on changes in chromosomes. Since 1982, he had been associate professor of pathology, medicine and oncology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Previously, he was chief of cytogenetics for the National Cancer Institute's Baltimore Cancer Research Program on the Maryland campus.

In addition to mesothelioma research, Testa has been widely recognized for his work on leukemia. He held a Special Fellowship from the Leukemia Society of America from 1982 to 1984 and a Leukemia Society of America Scholar Award from 1984 to 1990. In 1987, Testa received the Society's prestigious Stohlman Memorial Scholar Award, honoring him for his studies of chromosome alterations in acute leukemia.

He was named a senior member of Fox Chase's medical science division in 1992. With his 1999 appointment as director of the human genetics program, he became a senior member of the division of population science. He currently serves on the editorial boards of four scientific journals.

Born in Norwalk, Conn., Testa earned his Ph.D. in biological sciences from Fordham University in New York in 1976. After postdoctoral work at Yale University School of Medicine, he became assistant director of the internationally acclaimed cytogenetics laboratory at the University of Chicago School of Medicine.

Testa and his wife, Priscilla, live in Churchville, Pa., with their daughter, Courtney. Their household includes five Jack Russell terriers. Two have won numerous championships at regional and national terrier working trials-competitions that became Joe's hobby about nine years ago, when the first Jack Russell joined the Testas' kennel.

The Carol and Kenneth E. Weg Chair will help support Testa's research by funding laboratory personnel, equipment and supplies. In announcing the endowment of the chair last year, Kenneth Weg praised the Center's high standard of excellence in all areas.

"My hope is that the new Research Institute for Cancer Prevention will extend the same kind of very special care in helping people prevent cancer," said Weg, who has more than 30 years of experience in the health-care industry. He joined Bristol-Myers Squibb in 1969 and has played a key role in its management for over a decade.

Fox Chase Cancer Center, one of the nation's first comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute in 1974, conducts basic and clinical research; programs of prevention, detection and treatment of cancer; and community outreach. For more information about Fox Chase activities, visit the Center's web site at:

Fox Chase Cancer Center, part of the Temple University Health System, is one of the leading cancer research and treatment centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence four consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach.  For more information, call 1-888-FOX CHASE or (1-888-369-2427).

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