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Stanford Oral History Collections

Weissman, Irving L.

Weissman, Irving L.
Weissman, Irving L. and Steinhart, Peter
Corporate Author:
Stanford Historical Society
Irving “Irv” Weissman is a developmental biology professor at Stanford, where he is the Virginia & D.K. Ludwig Professor for Clinical Investigation in Cancer Research and the director of Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. He was instrumental in the isolation and characterization of the first blood-forming stem cells, which give rise to all blood and immune cells in the body, and the cancer stem cells found in leukemia. In addition to his research activities, he founded three stem cell therapy companies, was involved in the formation of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), and served on the National Academy of Science’s panel on human cloning in 2001. He earned his medical degree from Stanford University School of Medicine in 1965 and has held an academic position at Stanford since 1969. Weissman begins the interview by recounting his childhood in Great Falls, Montana and relating how, as a high school student, he was mentored by organ transplant pioneer, Ernst Eichwald. He describes his undergraduate studies at Montana State College and the research opportunities he had access to as a student in Stanford’s five-year medical school program. Weissman conveys his excitement with the immunology research done at Stanford in the 1960s, focusing on Henry Kaplan’s work with leukemia and the thymus, which led to Weissman’s own research focus. He recounts the experience of attending a meeting at the New York Academy of Sciences where James Gowans presented his findings on lymphocyte development, and the research he did in Gowans’s lab in Oxford to prove that lymphocytes migrate to the thymus where they develop into T-cells. His research experiences, Weissman says, led to petitioning Stanford dean Sidney Raffel to allow him to forgo his residency requirements in order to take a position in Kaplan’s lab, which led to his appointment as an associate professor in the Pathology Department. He describes the experiments that led him to conclude that T-cells mount an immune response to viruses through activation of a cell surface receptor. Weissman also speaks about his professional and social connections to his research collaborators, Ronald Levy and Leroy Hood. Weissman discusses events that could have set back his career: his decision to publically oppose the Vietnam War draft, and his then-controversial receptor-mediated leukemia hypothesis, which nearly caused him to be passed over for tenure. He discusses his work with Mike McEwan on creating a humanized mouse to study HIV infection and blood-forming stem cell regeneration, and the legal and bureaucratic obstacles that led them to form the company Systemix to continue this research. Weissman explains his support for translating scientific discoveries for use in drug development and cancer treatment and goes into detail about the technologies, funding, business strategy, and politics of the many companies--DNAX, Systemix, Sandoz Pharma, Novartis, Cellerant Therapeutics, StemCells Inc., and Amagen--in which he has played a role. He speaks about a specific clinical trial that used isolated blood-forming stem cells in the treatment of metastatic breast cancer, defends its findings, and speaks optimistically about a new Stanford clinical trial to confirm the original results. He also discusses his work with Mike Clarke and Steve Quake to identify and isolate cancer stem cells and the underlying biology of how a blood-forming stem cell turns cancerous. Weissman talks about serving on the human cloning panel and the reasons behind the panel’s conclusion that, at the time, clinical cloning was unacceptable but that research on nuclear transfer to create embryonic stem cell lines should continue. Following the Bush administration’s decision to follow the panel’s recommendation on the former but not the latter, Weissman recounts his involvement in the pushback that resulted in California’s Proposition 71 and the formation of CIRM. He details the legislation he helped to write that regulates how CIRM handles grants, clinical trials, and industry collaboration. He goes on to discuss his CIRM CD47 clinical trial, explaining the research characterizing the cell surface marker done with Ravi Majeti, why they decided to partner with England’s Medical Research Council and Oxford University, and how CD47 communicates a “Don’t eat me” signal to immune cells. Weissman explains how he came to head the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine and discusses two recent hires: Hiro Nakauchi and Maria Grazia Roncarolo. He concludes the interview with his thoughts on the changes at Stanford during the past fifty-two years, and how his time at Stanford has influenced him.
Irving L. Weissman, Stanford Historical Society, oral histories, professors, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, stem cells--research, hematopoietic stem cells, and California Institute for Regenerative Medicine
April 2, 2014
Stanford Historical Society Oral History Program Interviews