scientist profiles

Peter K. Vogt

A Groundbreaking Pioneer in Cancer Research

As a teenager, Peter K. Vogt wanted to study philosophy and become a monk. After his undergraduate studies, he thought of becoming a high school teacher. And his love for painting also once made him consider a career as an artist. But instead he went into science – and became an internationally renowned cancer researcher whose work has profoundly changed biology and medicine.

But how did this pioneering scientist get his start? The first decision to pave the way was made in 1950, when Dr. Vogt as a teenager escaped from his East German home to the West. It was a dangerous step, something he and a friend had been preparing to do for some time. “We knew how to get across the border,” Dr. Vogt said of that first dramatic journey. “We’d gone across the border in previous summers – to taste freedom. By the time I finished high school, even before that, I knew that I had to leave.”

He went to Würzburg, a city which had been almost completely destroyed during World War II, but was about to be rebuilt. “I liked the spirit of this city and knew that this was the place to be.” He studied biology at the University of Würzburg and also took classes with the painter Josef Versl. After receiving his degree, he did not know what to do next and took a friend’s advice to do a summer internship at a research institute. “The institute was in a very small town. It was so boring, there was nothing you could do on a weekend, other than working and reading.” In the institute’s library he came across a book that changed his life –  General Virology by S. E. Luria. It was the first book on virology he read and it hooked him. He decided to stay in science and joined the Max Planck Institute for Virus Research in Tübingen – the only institute in Germany working in the field of virology at that time – for his graduate studies.

In 1959 he moved to America, where he had been accepted for postdoctoral training at the University of California in Berkeley. During his postdoctoral studies in the laboratory of Dr. Harry Rubin he started to work on a virus that induces cancer. Dr. Rubin had just developed a method to study cancer in cell culture. This method became the starting point for much of the scientific developments that have shaped cancer research today.

In the late 60s, Dr. Vogt discovered mutants in cancer viruses that proved they carry a single cancer causing gene. Drs. Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus at UCSF used these mutants to show that humans carry these cancer genes in an inactive form. We now know that human cancer essentially involves the activation of these oncogenes in the body. Our current understanding of cancer as a disease of genes is based on these seminal discoveries. Humans and animals carry many different cancer genes, and several that play critical roles in cancer were discovered by Dr. Vogt in the course of his studies with cancer viruses. His most recent discovery is a protein called PI 3-kinase which regulates numerous body functions. This protein is often mutated in common cancers; it increases its activity and then drives the development of the tumor. PI 3-kinase is now considered one of the most promising cancer targets.

The ultimate goal of his work has long been to apply the genetic knowledge of cancer to the development of novel therapies that will be effective in the treatment of the disease. In 1993 he joined The Scripps Research Institute as a Professor in the Department of Molecular and Experimental Medicine. He was attracted by the interaction of world class chemistry with the traditionally outstanding biomedical sciences at Scripps. “It was a genius decision to integrate these two branches of science in the fabric of the Institute. Here, I can hope to translate genetic knowledge and insights into new therapies. At Scripps, I can concentrate on my work with a minimum of distraction, collaborate with top scientists, and receive amazing institutional support. It’s the ideal environment for my work, and I think it points the way to the future of cancer research.”

The scientific community has honored Dr. Vogt with several distinguished awards including the Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine (1985), the Robert J. and Claire Pasarow Award (1987), the ICN International Prize in Virology (1989), the Bristol Myers Award (1989), the Paul-Ehrlich and Ludwig-Darmstaedter Prize (1988), the Charles S. Mott Prize (1991) and most recently the Albert Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research.

Dr. Vogt’s 50 years in science were marked with exciting and groundbreaking discoveries. Looking back, he feels he made the right decision when he fell in love with virology – but this does not mean he neglected his passion for art. Painting still remains a significant part of his life. “Speed and spontaneity are of essence in my art, and I favor watercolor as a medium. Watercolor tools are also readily portable, facilitating work en plein air – my strongest source of inspiration…”

Driven by a curiosity to discover, Dr. Vogt continues to be a leader in multiple aspects of cancer research, including initiatives that use some of the most important oncogenes as therapeutic targets – initiatives that are bringing renewed hope to cancer patients.

(Please see Dr. Vogt’s website at http://www.scripps.edu/mem/vogt/ for more information on his research and a link to his gallery website.)

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The ultimate goal of Professor Peter Vogt’s work is to apply the genetic knowledge of cancer to the development of novel therapies to treat the disease.