Type to search

Cancer scientist has many ‘copies,’ and they’re all passionate about their work


Dr. Dario Altieri doesn’t know all the reasons why last year he was named one of the region’s most admired CEOs by Philadelphia Business Journal.

The Justinian Foundation and Society – founded in 1935 by attorneys of Italian ancestry in greater Philadelphia – in 2023 also honored Altieri, for his scholarship, civic leadership and integrity.

Maybe it’s his commitment: He’s at his desk by 8 a.m. as president and CEO at The Wistar Institute, America’s first nonprofit biomedical research organization. He’s often working at 6 p.m., plus evenings and weekends. He is also director of the Ellen and Ronald Caplan Cancer Center, and he co-founded the Pancreatic Cancer Alliance and the National Cancer Biology Training Consortium. 


Maybe it’s how he led Wistar in the pandemic, developing alternative work arrangements to ensure staff members remained safe as they worked on vaccines and therapeutic antibodies. He declined his bonus but called for $500 bonuses for the staff when the institute ran a surplus.

Maybe it’s multitasking. “When I get in the car to drive to work in the morning, there are a few people in the car with me,” he said in a Wistar newsletter. “There is a copy of me that is the scientist who does laboratory work. There is a copy of me that serves as an administrator, and there is a copy of me that leads other scientists. With all these iterations of me, one thing has remained constant: the passion to discover, the idea of a quest, the idea of asking questions and getting answers.”

Maybe it’s his passion for Wistar’s goals. “We always joke that we don’t really have a life,” he said of himself and his wife, Lucia Languino, a professor of cancer biology at Thomas Jefferson University. “We don’t have the summer homes or condos in the mountains or stuff like that. We enjoy what we do. And we’re passionate about it.”

Altieri was born in Milan and earned degrees at the University of Milan School of Medicine in internal medicine and in clinical and experimental hematology. In 1987, he moved to the United States, working at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, the Yale University School of Medicine and the UMass Chan Medical School before moving to Wistar, in Philadelphia’s University City.

“Connecting with others through healing was a big appeal to me,” he explained.” “And cancer is this amazingly complex problem that fascinated me. I wanted to take the opportunity to make a difference.”

His LinkedIn profile also lists starting on a master’s in liberal arts. “I was the youngest tenured professor at the medical school at Yale, and Yale has a rule that you cannot have reached those heights without a degree from Yale. So they give you one, honoris causa. It’s a fake. Absolutely ridiculous.” It also recalls skillsets he developed in Italy to work around life’s barriers and obstacles. “Remarkable similarities, yes.”

Although he has no family left in Italy, he returns two or three times a year, spending time at the 17th century farmhouse in Emilia-Romagna where he summered while young and also with the family of Languino, who grew up in Puglia. The family farm is planted in wheat, “but in the valley next door, there’s a very reputable winery. I come back with at least a case of wine,” he said.

They live in Center City Philadelphia, with their son Adrian, who just earned his bachelor’s degree in classical and ancient studies and is taking a gap year as a researcher before starting med school.

Of course, he was brought up Italian, in language, food and culture. Yet one day when he was 6 or 7, he told his parents that “I’m American.” Their response: “We are, too.”

Dario offered this definition of being Italian: “The warmth of the human connection. You feel welcome. Unparalleled. I treasure the traditions. It’s not just the usual – that the food is great, that the weather is great. It’s about values. Sincerity, participation, being immediate. And even with all the dialects being spoken and people being slightly different, there’s still a sense of community.”

Altieri is best known in the science community for two achievements. One is discovering a gene called survivin. “It keeps tumors alive and means that they can defy treatment,” he said. Survivin is the fourth most overexpressed gene in human cancer and a universal marker of poor prognosis for tumors of the bladder, brain, breast colon and nervous system, among others.

The other is his work on mitochondria, “which are very important in powering up cancer. It took me 13 years from concept at the lab bench to bring Gamitrinib, a small molecule inhibitor of some mitochondrial functions, to clinical trials here at Philadelphia’s Fox Chase Cancer Center.”

He has been listed on 13 patents and more than 260 peer-reviewed scientific articles.

When asked what he wanted people to know about cancer, he offered simple and significant advice: “Physical exercise. Healthy lifestyles. Healthy food. They don’t cure anybody, but they reduce risk.”

He gets blood work twice a year, a physical and a PSA test every year. “And get a colonoscopy. And if you’re a lady, get your mammography. That could make the difference between finding something early, when it could be surgically removed, and finding something when it’s too late.” 

Stay up-to-date with our free email newsletter

Keep a pulse on local food, art, and entertainment content when you join our Italian-American Herald Newsletter.