Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2009


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Cancer in the Crosshairs

Cancer in the Crosshairs
Ellen Vitetta ´64

Ellen Vitetta ´64 is targeting
cancer with new therapies

by Leslie Rovetti

Ellen Vitetta ´64 says she came to New London to study science at “a time when women didn´t do this sort of thing.”

But Vitetta did. She was one of 13 zoology majors in her class at what was then an all-women´s school in the early 1960s, years before Connecticut College had earned its reputation for a strong undergraduate program in the sciences. At that time she took many courses that focused on the arts and humanities, and while she says those subjects enriched her as a person and served her well in that regard, they left her at a disadvantage when it came to graduate school. When Vitetta enrolled in a graduate program in immunology at New York University, that first year was “a wake-up call.” But the challenge proved to be no obstacle for the energetic Vitetta, who graduated and then joined the NYU faculty.

In 1974 she found her way to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where she remains today as professor of microbiology, director of the Cancer Immunobiology Center and holder of the Sheryle Simmons Patigian Distinguished Chair in Cancer Immunobiology. Over the decades she has racked up a resume of prestigious awards, written over 500 papers and founded two biotech companies. She is a member of Alpha Omega Alpha, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Science, the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Microbiology and the American Academy of Cancer Immunology. She is among the 100 most cited biomedical scientists and the 10 most cited women of the past several decades. In 1997 Connecticut College awarded her the College Medal.

Seek and destroy

Among Vitetta´s current projects are targeted cancer therapeutics that direct toxic agents to the cancer cells.

“They seek and destroy, basically,” she says. “It´s very much like a guided missile approach.”

Her targeted therapeutics are an improvement over standard treatments in which the entire body is subject to the toxic agent, such as radiation or chemotherapy.

Another project in her laboratory is a new platform for making vaccines. She has successfully created a ricin vaccine for biodefense, and is working on other vaccines for pathogens that have no vaccine now, such as HIV, hepatitis C and West Nile virus.
She estimates that her research takes up 40 hours every week, and she probably spends another 40 hours looking for funding sources. The National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other sources have funded her research.

“In the past eight years, it crashed,” she says of research funding. “The Bush administration was not very favorable to scientific research. ... A lot of scientists have left the field.”

She hopes that aspect of her profession is about to change.

“I think Obama´s high on science and technology,” she says. “I´m just hoping it will be fixed.”

Vitetta is also a professor who teaches and works with graduate students and fellows.

“I like to see them succeed and carry the torch into the future,” she says of her graduate fellows. And as for teaching, “It´s very rewarding when they finally get it.”

Watching her protégés transition into their own successful careers, and knowing she had a hand in it, is gratifying. One of her former fellows, Linda Buck, won the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

“That was very rewarding and very exciting,” Vitetta says.

Shattering the Pyrex ceiling

While accomplishing her research goals in Texas, Vitetta noticed a barrier hindering the success of female academics. Not willing to be content with just her own success, she helped found the Women in Science and Medicine Advisory Committee, or WISMAC.

“I have a very large mouth when it comes to these things,” she says, laughing.

She took the reins at WISMAC and helped to build a childcare center and establish salary equity among the faculty. After 10 years, she felt she had accomplished enough to step down.

“Consciousness was raised and things were actually done,” she says. Now, “Texas is more open and willing to listen.”

There were fights, she says, but all were well worth it.

“It involved a lot of battles,” she notes. “I could show you the bruises on my back.”

Connecticut College is also looking for ways to achieve gender equality, according to Martha Grossel, associate professor of biology and chair of the department.

“The environment for women has changed a lot,” she says.

Although the attitudes may be different, both Vitetta and Grossel say that most science faculties are not yet half female. Twenty-first-century undergraduate and graduate programs are attracting equal numbers of women — unlike in Vitetta´s day — but both say that ratio begins to change after grad school.

“It´s a nationwide problem,” Grossel says.

Unlimited possibilities

Looking 20 years into the future, Vitetta can see even greater improvements in cancer therapies and vaccinations, but one thing she doesn´t see is her own retirement.

“I´m good to go till I fall over,” she says. “As long as the neurons are working and the ideas are flowing, I´m good to go.”
She sees the field of cancer therapy moving into the realm of custom drugs where treatments are tailored to each individual. Cancer could one day become a chronic illness, one that can be managed. Early detection will be more common, and vaccines may well prevent most types of cancer.

If the targeted therapies she is working on now become the norm, she says the “slash-burn-cut mentality” of today´s cancer treatments will be relegated to medical history with leeches, and it will be possible to not “kill the person and the tumor at the same time,” as chemotherapy sometimes does now.

“Everything is about specificity,” she says. “There are unlimited possibilities.”

When not in her lab or teaching, Vitetta doesn´t spend a lot of time with her feet up. She breeds, grows and shows orchids and is a competitive weight lifter. She doesn´t own a television.

“I rarely sit still,” she says. “I´ve learned to sleep standing up.”

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