by Kevin Johnson
It will all happen, Alicia Löffler says, in the next 10 to 20 years - everything people hope for and everything people fear from biotechnology.
Cloning will be used to produce a child for an infertile couple or to produce a child who could donate bone marrow to a sick family member. Pet dogs will be cloned.
Gene therapy will be used - as is being done experimentally now - to target diseases: Genes will prevent cells from reproducing out of control in a cancerous way. They will divert blood from tumors, starving them. They will be used to construct healthy cells that can be injected into the body, crowding out defective ones.
And scientist/doctors will invade embryos, tweaking here, adjusting there, until a higher-quality biological product is produced. Löffler is reluctant to talk about such things. "People receive only fragmented information about biotechnology that leads them to magnify its negative aspects," she says. "It makes them create a vision that looks pretty scary."
Whether that vision actually comes true, or is replaced by a more welcome future, will depend in large part, Löffler says, on the people who discover and commercialize the biotechnological advances that make such things possible.
That's where she comes in. As director of the Northwestern University Center for Biotechnology, Löffler helps shape the attitudes and outlooks of the roughly 45 students a year who complete its 13-month graduate program and enter the field.
She's one of the best in the business. "Alicia combines a genuine interest in people with a thorough knowledge of this vast field in all its permutations," says Steven Burke, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Biotechnology Centers, a 100-member coalition of institutions doing similar research.
Other members were impressed enough to elect Löffler to be the next president of the council.
Unlike purely theoretical sciences - such as biology, chemistry and physics - biotechnology, by definition, concerns itself with practical applications as well as pure research.
"There's a continuum," Burke says, "from societal need, to research, to commercialization, to investment, to manufacturing, to consumer use." Competition is fierce. About three-quarters of all biotechnology centers are associated with research universities, and they are all vying to publicize and market the discoveries made at such schools.
Löffler's positioning of the NUCB, however, has been an act of Darwinian elegance. Instead of competing to market discoveries made by Northwestern researchers and professors, Löffler realized the University could be far more influential in another way: Since her tenure began in 1995, she has sharpened the center's focus on turning out students who both know how to do research and how to go about the business of biotechnology.
And what about publicizing research done at the University? "That's coming in the next few years," Löffler says. Her vision has made the NU center one of the first to offer, as Science magazine trumpeted in 1995, a "marketable" master's.
"Alicia knows that curiosity in science is important," Burke says, "because that's the way scientists are. But she also knows how that curiosity must find its place in the overall scheme of things. So she injects a little dose of entrepreneur in everybody."
It's an injection that graduates appreciate. In courses like Finance for Biotechnology and Marketing for Biotechnology, they learn how to turn real science into real business. The center also teaches negotiating skills, résumé writing and the arts of entrepreneurship - starting and running your own business - and intrapreneurship - applying some of the skills of entrepreneurship within the structure of a corporation. In the Science magazine story, Löffler said proudly that it takes very little time for each graduating class to become fully employed, at starting salaries ranging from $40,000 to $70,000.
But in a world that sometimes seems soulless and sterile to the outsider - conjuring up a "pretty scary" vision - Löffler has gained a reputation for just the opposite, a reputation as someone who, corny as it sounds, has a heart and cares about each student.
"She doesn't have her head buried in academia," says Adam Chazan (G98). "She's dynamic. And she's just nice. I trusted her from the start." A Cornell University graduate with a degree in microbiology, Chazan says Löffler made the unlikely suggestion that he spend one of his two required NUCB internships writing computer code for a biology lab, a completely new experience for him.
Chazan says the project helped him realize he had more career options than he originally thought. "It convinced me that I could do whatever I wanted," he says. Chazan is now in the equity research department of an investment bank.
Löffler gives students "a sort of motherly push," says Ginger Johnson, former NUCB associate director. "She spends a tremendous amount of time figuring out what might be best for the students. She knows she's building both careers and lives."
"The students get a lot of nurturing," Löffler admits. "They are young and they need help."
If she seems extraordinarily passionate about making sure her students have a chance to get the most out of life, that might be because Löffler grew up during a particularly stressful era, the 1976-83 military dictatorship in Argentina in which thousands were killed. The youngest child in a family with four sons, Löffler was raised by a mother who trained to be a chemist and a father who dreamed of being a doctor but was forced to take a job in a bank mailroom. (He eventually became bank president.)
It may be overly facile to make the connection, but it hardly seems coincidental that her current job combines the interests of each parent. "I never thought of that," Löffler says, "but it's right. I'm satisfying both of them."
Her early childhood in the suburbs of Buenos Aires was idyllic, with winter vacations in the mountains and summers at the beach. But all that changed around the time of her second year of high school, when the repressive military began snatching "undesirables" off the street or out of their homes. None were taken from Löffler's family, but many of her friends were "disappeared," she says. The high school she attended was considered suspect by the regime because it was too "intellectual." That was true; the halls were rife with political discussion.
Outside the high school, one had to be careful. "You never went anywhere without your toothbrush because you didn't know when you would go home," she recalls. "You would never walk in front of a police station, for instance. It was too dangerous." Nor was it only the danger of being arrested. Löffler remembers speaking to her boyfriend on the phone and hearing bullets whiz by him. Many people, she says, forced themselves to "just get used to it. It was one more thing to deal with." But such repression was not without cost. When she thinks of that time now, she says, the people seem "so gray. Like people you used to see from Eastern Europe." It was not the kind of hopeless existence she wanted. Her oldest brother left Argentina first, settling in California. Löffler followed. Then two more brothers left. Only one brother and her parents stayed.
Her experiences in Argentina, Löffler says, left her determined to do something of social significance, and what that something would be was never in doubt.
"In the Stone Age," she says, "it was the discovery of metal that was the most significant event. In the 1800s, it was the Industrial Revolution. The 20th century has been all about physics. And in my eyes, there is no question that biotechnology will make the most significant difference in the 21st century."
By 1986, Löffler had gotten a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and was busy at the California Institute of Technology recombining DNA molecules to get organisms to overproduce insulin proteins. It was exciting work. "I knew I wanted to learn more about biotechnology," Löffler says. When she was offered the chance to help start a biotechnology department at the University of Massachusetts, her alma mater, she took it. But state funding for the new program was slow. It took a year to get things rolling.
By then, Löffler knew, she had lost valuable time. Her experience at CalTech had shown her that the field was fast-moving, and that new discoveries were being made constantly. "I thought, 'Huh, I'm going to lose the race,' " she says.
So when the chance to shape the direction of the NUCB came, she snapped it up.
But it wasn't only the chance to run such a program that attracted her. It was also the opportunity to help ensure that the field of biotechnology develops in a responsible way. And that is why new students are required to sign a code of ethics, part of which states that they agree to "truthfully represent fact and self at all times" and to "consider ahead of time the consequences and ramifications of [their] work."
Remembering, perhaps, her own experience with the horrors that humans are capable of, Löffler says, "It could happen very easily that you get caught up in the science, and then one day, you step back and say, 'Wait a minute, where is this science taking me?' What's nice about biotechnology now is that it's a new field, we have a clean record and we have a chance to keep it that way.
"Have you seen the movie Gattaca?" she asks.
The 1997 picture is set in a future in which genetic manipulation at birth is the norm. At one point, the parents of a newborn listen with increasing discomfort as a doctor gives them a rundown on all the benefits biotechnology has been able to confer on the new baby - eradicating premature baldness, myopia, alcoholism, a propensity for violence and so on.
Finally, the father says, haltingly, "We didn't want ... I mean, diseases, yes, but ... We were just wondering ... if it's good to just leave a few things to chance."
The doctor smiles patronizingly, having clearly had this conversation hundreds of times. "Believe me, there are enough imperfections built in already," he oozes. "Your child doesn't need any additional burdens. And keep in mind, the child is still you. Simply the best of you."
Löffler knows that idea of being able to use designer genes to create the perfect child makes many people uncomfortable. But she also seems to like this movie.
It's easy to guess why. The hero turns out to be someone who is less than perfect genetically but has the greatest passion to succeed and the greatest compassion for others.
It's an outcome Löffler says she finds perfectly proper.
Kevin Johnson is the Chicago correspondent for the Life section of USA Today. He is also webmaster of the Spizzerinctum Page, an obscure word Web site.
Alicia Löffler and Adam Chazan photos by Andrew Campbell; Cristina Stadler photo by David Joel