Richard K. Wilson

As a result, says Dr. Wilson, the day is only about 35 years away when most forms of cancer will be no more threatening than acid reflux is now. People will take their equivalent of Prilosec each morning and go on with their day, thank you very much.

Richard K. Wilson

As a boy growing up in Kent, Ohio, Richard K. Wilson dreamed that one day he might cure cancer. As the director of The Genome Institute (TGI) at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, he is actually doing it.

This is not an exaggeration. Medical science has already made tremendous advances in treating some forms of leukemia and a few other cancers through analysis of the mutations responsible for the diseases.  Now TGI, a collection of about 200 scientists from a range of fields, is working to do the same kind of thing for breast, lung, prostate and other cancers, and indeed for other complex diseases, from cardiovascular conditions to Alzheimer’s Disease and many more.  

In fact, as recently as 2013, TMI announced a breakthrough -- it had identified virtually all of the mutations that drive acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a particularly deadly and difficult-to- treat form of the disease.

As a result, says Dr. Wilson, the day is only about 35 years away when most forms of cancer will be no more threatening than acid reflux is now.  People will take their equivalent of Prilosec each morning and go on with their day, thank you very much.

“It’s going to be a different world,” says Dr. Wilson, who goes by “Rick” and exudes the easy informality common to many academic scientists.  During an interview at his office – in a nondescript former office building in the Central West End – he wears shorts and a polo shirt.

Much of that world is going to be made here in St. Louis by Rick and his colleagues at TGI.  And why that happens to be the case is a story that goes deep into the history and character of both Washington University and the community itself.  

The story actually starts in 1891, when Washington U. established its School of Medicine and soon thereafter made a commitment to excellence.  Among the school’s first four department heads was a future Nobel Prize winner.  Since then 16 more people affiliated with the medical school have earned Nobels, and the school has long ago won world recognition for both teaching and research.  Every year it is among the top recipients of National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funding.

Rick heard the university’s siren call in 1990.  A Ph.D. chemist and biologist, he was a post-doctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, seeking new and faster ways to “sequence” genes.  “Sequencing” is the name given to discovering the order of the key chemicals that make up genes and then determining how the genes work together to make living creatures what they are.  The process can be compared to learning how to understand an unknown language – to cracking a secret code.

Caltech is a scientific powerhouse just miles from the Pacific Ocean, but Washington U. was able to recruit him, Rick says, because of the “impressive nucleus” of people it had working in his nascent field, genomics, an amalgam of genetics, molecular biology and computational analysis.  Indeed, within three years, the team Rick joined here had such success in pioneering sequencing techniques in a relatively simple worm that the NIH picked it for an enormously more important and complicated challenge – sequencing the human genetic code. The effort, global in scope, was known as The Human Genome Project, and Washington University was one of just three institutions in the United States picked to lead it.

Just 10 years later, in 2003, the work had been completed. Washington University had singlehandedly sequenced about 25 percent of the human genome – a huge contribution – and Rick was now the TGI’s director. Soon thereafter, he led TGI into the research into cancer and other complex diseases that is already showing so much promise.  

Along the way, Rick has become the most-cited scientific researcher in the world, according to Thomson Reuters’ Science Watch.  But astonishingly, three other TGI scientists are also among the top 21 on the list for 2012 – Elaine Mardis, TGI’s co-director; Li Ding; and Robert Fulton. No other institution has more than one scientist on the list.

The team here has been particularly successful, Rick says, because it really is a team.  Scientists simply work together more collegially in St. Louis than they do on either coast, he says.  “This was a really exciting thing I discovered when I came here,” he says.  “The people here are really smart and they actually want to work together.  I think it’s just the good Midwestern work ethic.”

Living in St. Louis also offers other advantages, Rick says.  The metropolitan area “is big enough to have stuff to do, while not so big that you get lost and clobbered when you go to do it.”  There’s also, he says, “a good sense of community.”

He and his wife, a high school tennis coach, live in suburban Chesterfield and have raised twin sons, now in their 20s. While not curing cancer, Rick builds electric guitars – one is hanging on the door of his office – and trains in Shotokan karate.

“It’s a full life,” he says, adding, with obvious, understated satisfaction, “I wouldn’t trade it.”