Fresh off the construction of its gleaming, $100 million building expansion in University City, the Wistar Institute announced Thursday that it had appointed a new leader from within.

Russel E. Kaufman, chief executive officer of the independent research institute since 2002, is stepping down in March to be succeeded by cancer biologist Dario C. Altieri.

Altieri, 56, who left the University of Massachusetts in 2010 to head Wistar's cancer center and serve as the institute's first chief scientific officer, said that among his goals was the continued recruitment of top-notch faculty.

The institute, known for its research on cancer, immunology, and genetics, had been "landlocked" in its old building, unable to expand beyond 30 core faculty members, said Kaufman, 68. The building project, which included the construction of the new seven-story Robert and Penny Fox Tower and an overhaul of existing spaces, allows room for 40 to 45 scientists, he said.

Altieri said the prospect of the new building, which Kaufman championed in a 2010 strategic plan, was a key motive in his move to Wistar that year.

Under his leadership, Altieri predicted that Wistar scientists would capitalize on the promise of fighting cancer by sequencing the genetic information in tumors. He also anticipates increased partnership with drug companies, citing as an example GlaxoSmithKline's recent announcement that its scientists would work on a cancer target with Wistar faculty member Maureen Murphy.

Altieri and Kaufman are physicians, but research is their game.

"We are not a hospital. Our scientists are exclusively dedicated to research," Altieri said. "That's really an amazing setting. There are no distractions. There are no additional missions or focus for the organization."

It is a mission that has borne fruit of late, with Wistar receiving more than $16 million in 2013 in royalties from drug discoveries - chief among them a rotavirus vaccine developed by its scientists, sold as RotaTeq by Merck.

Wistar scientists have eight more promising drug candidates in the pipeline, including one to treat Epstein-Barr virus, Kaufman said.

At $16.3 million, royalties and other such "technology transfer" funds accounted for 22 percent of the institute's budget in 2013. When Kaufman came in 2002, that total was just $1.56 million, or 5 percent of total revenues, according to the organization's annual report.

Federal grants, meanwhile, made up 41 percent of Wistar's budget in 2013, down from 77 percent in 2002. Not because the dollar amount has decreased - on the contrary, grants have kept pace with inflation in an era of stagnant federal funding - but because the overall Wistar budget grew from $29 million to $75 million.

Under Kaufman's watch, the organization's endowment also has grown, more than tripling from $31 million to $98 million, he said. He likes to joke that he spends 50 percent of his time on fund-raising, 50 percent on administration, and 50 percent on research.

In his new role, Kaufman said, he will continue to work on business development but will have more time to study a promising cancer target called SECTM1, which he helped discover in his previous job at Duke University.

tavril@phillynews.com

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