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Cell Biologist Zaret Named to New Fox Chase Cancer Center Chair - the William Wikoff Smith Chair Endowed by the W. W. Smith Charitable Trust

PHILADELPHIA (Feb. 9, 2000) -- Dr. Kenneth S. Zaret, a cell and developmental biologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, has become the first scientist to hold the new William Wikoff Smith Chair in Cancer Research at Fox Chase. The W. W. Smith Charitable Trust of Newtown Square, Pa., endowed the $1.5 million chair in 1999 as part of the Center's $38 million campaign to fund the Research Institute for Cancer Prevention, the first comprehensive cancer prevention research initiative in the country.

Zaret, who heads the Center's scientific program in cell and developmental biology, joined Fox Chase in August as a senior member of the basic science division. He previously served for 13 years on the faculty of Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, R.I., where he had been a full professor of molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry since 1996.

Zaret's research focuses on understanding how genes are activated and how early embryonic cells become specific tissue types during the development of mammals. One of his laboratory models uses cultured embryonic cells that normally specialize as internal organs. These cells, known as endoderm cells, have the potential to become liver or pancreatic cells.

Zaret has identified molecular signals that tell an embryo where and when a liver should appear. Recently, he has learned to use those signals to direct immature cells in culture to begin liver formation.

Since the liver is a target for hepatitis, chronic diseases such as alcoholism and the spread of many cancers, this research has the potential for a significant impact on maintaining human health and combating disease.

"The work we do is fundamental to understanding early liver growth and the ability of this organ to regenerate," Zaret said. "Understanding the basis of developing organs in the embryo reveals processes that are repeated in adults. Also, many of the changes that occur during the embryonic process mimic changes that occur during the development of cancer."

The other part of Zaret's work looks at mechanisms of gene regulation, particularly how regulatory genes and proteins work to compact some 100,000 genes so they fit snugly in the nucleus of each cell as microscopic bundles of chromosomes. These packages consist of chromatin-a mix of protein and strands of DNA that would be up to six feet long if laid end to end.

Together, Zaret's research on chromatin regulation and organ development has led to a theory he calls "developmental competence," involving the way genes are activated to begin the formation of organs.

Zaret's laboratory is using DNA array technology to screen for genes activated as embryonic cells progress to the first stage of liver development. The technology, part of the new genomics facility at Fox Chase, allows researchers to analyze thousands of genes in a sample at one time.

Zaret envisions that within a few years, such technology may be used to analyze human tumors, discover which genes and their proteins are active in promoting the cancer and provide insight into new targeted drugs or other therapies to stop cancer progression. A long-term goal, Zaret said, is to manipulate the molecular signaling system in a way that puts runaway cancer cells back on a normal course.

"The more we can define critical regulatory mechanisms in normal cells and tumor cells, the more specific cancer treatment can become," he explained.

Born in Islip, N.Y., Zaret earned his bachelor's degree in biology and his Ph.D. in biophysics and genetics at the University of Rochester in New York. From 1982 to 1985, he held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California in San Francisco before joining the Brown faculty as an assistant professor in 1986.

Zaret and his wife, Robin, live in Elkins Park, Pa., with their five-year-old daughter, Dina, and three-year-old son, Evan. Robin Zaret is a free-lance architect and home renovator. For recreation, the Zarets enjoy hiking. Dr. Zaret also likes wind-surfing.

The William Wikoff Smith Chair will help support Zaret's research by funding laboratory personnel, equipment and supplies. The chair honors the memory of William Wikoff Smith, president and board chairman of Kewanee Oil Company, who died in 1976. Medical research was among his principal philanthropic interests.

Smith's will created The W. W. Smith Charitable Trust to continue his work through grants to outstanding area institutions. His widow, Mary L. Smith of Gladwyne, Pa., is a trustee. In addition to the recent endowment for the faculty chair, The W. W. Smith Charitable Trust has provided more than $2.6 million in grants to Fox Chase for basic cancer research.

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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