Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

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Long before he became one of the world's most celebrated immunologists, Jan Vilcek began life in Slovakia as the child of Jewish parents at a time when Jews were being exterminated all across Europe. He owes his and his mother’s survival to the courage of brave people and good luck. As a young man growing up in Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the Second World War, Vilcek went to medical school and chose a career in virology and immunology at a time when these fields were still in their infancy. While still in his twenties he published a paper in the prestigious journal Nature, and he hosted the first international conference on interferon. Fleeing Communist Czechoslovakia with his wife Marica, Vilcek continued his research at NYU School of Medicine, going on to establish a highly successful career in biomedical research, and creating one of the most important and trailblazing medicines of our age. 

After his arrival in the US in 1965 as a penniless refugee, he soon went on to spearhead some of the key advances in the research of interferon that enabled its therapeutic application, and through his research into tumor necrosis factor (TNF) made advances that led to the discovery of new genes and proteins and signaling pathways, opening up previously uncharted areas of medical innovation that have led to important new treatments for a wide range of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. Along the way Vilcek acquired material wealth he had never aspired to, catapulting him into the world of philanthropy.

Love and Science shows how advances in science sometimes result from the greatest disappointments, and how achievement in medical research is usually a team effort, where ideas are shared, where friendship and love sometimes matter most and serendipity is as important as a will to succeed—and where, over time, the least expected thing sometimes becomes the most important. In Vilcek's case the vaunted cure for cancer that many saw in TNF never materialized. However, out of the ashes of that hope came many related treatments that have changed countless lives and alleviated much suffering.

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“Jan Vilcek’s book tells an astonishing story of two intertwined journeys—one scientific, the other personal. The arc of the personal journey is remarkable: a childhood in Bratislava torn apart by Nazism and then overshadowed by Communism and an escape to a new continent. The scientific journey is just as vast—from explorations in immunology and microbiology to the discovery of some of the most remarkable medicines of our times. In both journeys, we encounter the essential ingredients of adventure: the urgency of exploration, flashes of inspiration, false leads, sudden successes, the importance of serendipity, the tortuous ups-and-downs of failures and struggles—but above all, that powerful animus to explore and discover new worlds. I could not put it down.”

“Jan Vilcek does not make himself the center of a heroic narrative but gives space to colleagues, friends, and family, yet emerging from this narrative is the unmistakably wise, warm, optimistic, and modest soul of a great man.”

“This is a memoir to be cherished. Dr. Jan Vilcek’s remarkable life bears witness to the totalitarian evils of Nazism and Communism that shaped his native Czechoslovakia, and to the life-saving miracles he produced in the laboratories of his adopted homeland, the United States. It’s a story of courage and freedom, of discovery and philanthropy—told with the elegant modesty of a man who devoted his life to easing the world’s pain. Put simply, it demands to be read.”

“It’s a marvelous book, as interesting about science as it is about the adventures of this extraordinary man. I couldn’t put it down.”

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Jan Vilcek is professor of Microbiology at NYU Langone Medical Center. Born in Bratislava, Slovakia (then Czechoslovakia), where he also earned his MD and PhD degrees, Vilcek together with his wife, Marica Vilcek, an art historian, immigrated to the US in 1965 where he joined the faculty of NYU School of Medicine. He is among the earliest researchers of interferon, an important immune system protein. Dr. Vilcek's contributions to the understanding of proteins that control the body's defenses were instrumental in the development of the anti-inflammatory drug Remicade®, the first member of a new class therapeutics called TNF blockers that are now widely used for the treatment of Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and other chronic inflammatory disorders. Dr. Vilcek has published more than 350 scholarly papers, and written or edited several professional books. He is also named as co-inventor on 38 U.S. patents. For his discoveries and his philanthropy, Vilcek received a 2013 National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama.