Anna Marie “Ann” Skalka: A Pioneer in Virus and Cancer Research

Anna Marie Skalka, PhD, 2018

A Pioneer in Virus and Cancer Research

For Anna Marie “Ann” Skalka, PhD, a career in cancer research started with some unexpected twists and turns. But in the end her path led to her current position as professor emerita and senior advisor to the president at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Skalka got an early start in science after taking a summer job in the billing department at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where her father worked manufacturing penicillin. Later in high school, Skalka began working in the labs there, an experience that helped shape her entire career.

The scientists she was assisting at Pfizer were experimenting with the use of various plant materials as possible screens for drug toxicities. “I learned how to do plant tissue culture and to plan experiments. I was kind of a junior technician, put under the supervision of a wonderful technician who really taught me how to work in a laboratory. She became a lifelong friend,” said Skalka.

Her experience at Pfizer and her interest in plants and animals led Skalka to major in biology during her undergraduate studies at Adelphi College in New York. Her faculty advisor there was a famous herpetologist, a zoologist who studies amphibians and reptiles. She thought for some time that she would follow his career path, that is until she took a class in biochemistry.

“That class changed the direction of my interest to genetics when one of our laboratory exercises was to extract beautiful long strings of DNA from a plant. It was just mind boggling to me that you could actually see the stuff that the genes are made of. That experience got me started on the path of molecular genetics. My faculty advisor was very supportive of this new direction and, although I hadn’t intended to go to graduate school initially, he strongly encouraged me to do so,” Skalka said.

She went on to earn a doctorate in microbiology from New York University Medical School and became internationally known for contributions to understanding how retroviruses replicate and insert their genetic material into the host genome. Although the most well-known retrovirus, HIV, causes AIDS, many other retroviruses cause cancer in animals and some cause cancer in humans. Skalka’s work has greatly informed the study and treatment of both diseases.

“From the time of their discovery, there was a great interest in learning how these viruses cause cancer in animals and of course a conviction that they may cause cancer in people as well. It was in discovering how cancer arises in mice and other animal species after infection with these viruses that we came to appreciate the genetic basis of the disease. These animal virus systems were very valuable laboratory tools to study the biology of cancer and to understand the fundamental concepts involved,” Skalka said.

Skalka began her research as a postdoctoral associate at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York from 1964 to 1969 before being invited to be part of a new basic research institution, the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology, funded by the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-LaRoche. Skalka noted that she was the only woman on the faculty for quite some time. Starting as a junior member, she was eventually promoted to laboratory chief and finally, chair of the Department of Molecular Oncology.

Skalka was recruited to Fox Chase in 1987 as director of the Institute for Cancer Research, which was the basic research arm of the center at that time.  In addition, a group of scientists from the Roche Institute came with her and helped her to set up her own laboratory at Fox Chase.

“I was doing research on retroviruses and oncogenes, and there wasn’t anything like that going on at the center when I arrived. My mission was not only to coordinate the outstanding basic research that was going on here, but also to recruit additional scientists with research programs focused on genetics and cancer,” said Skalka.

Skalka served as senior vice president for basic science at Fox Chase from 1987 until 2008 and is also the former W.W. Smith Chair in Cancer Research. In her many roles at Fox Chase, she has been able to promote and support the work of established research faculty as well as new faculty members in developing their independent research programs. 

“I felt that as a science administrator it was important for me to maintain my own independent research program. My personal involvement in research, with all the challenges and joys that entails, was very helpful not only in mentoring new investigators, but also in getting all of the faculty members to work together and with me.”