As part of Albion’s Alumni Speaker Series, Jim Wilson ‘77 was featured as a keynote speaker on Friday. Wilson founded the Lisa and James Wilson Institute for Medicine at Albion College and is the current head of the Orphan Disease Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Reflecting on his time in medical school, he acknowledged various challenges, particularly the transition from laboratory to hospital work. Despite his limited clinical experience, Wilson found inspiration in the observations he made, motivating him towards a health career.
“We never operate in a vacuum, especially when you put yourself on the forefront of medicine and science,” Wilson said. “That brought me into areas that I had no experience in whatsoever, but what Albion taught me was to be a forever student.”
While in medical school, Wilson was introduced to orphan diseases through patient care. He said Orphan diseases are conditions without drugs or therapy yet developed because they affect so few people worldwide.
“What struck me was really how awful these diseases were and what little was being done, just because they were orphan,” Wilson said.
Wilson encountered one such condition while in medical school: Epidermolysis bullosa, a rare disease that causes one’s skin to become fragile and blistered. A lack of research has thus far resulted in no tangible cure, which led Wilson to dedicate his life to genetic research.
Wilson found success in spinal muscular atrophy one (SMA1), an orphan disease that causes patients to die within 12-18 months due to low motor neurons, he said. Wilson and his lab created Zolgensma, an FDA-approved cure for SMA1. As of today, it is available in 45 countries.
Beyond his background in biotechnology, Wilson noted that genetic research also has a business side.
With his knowledge of genetics, Wilson started eight different biotechnology companies, all working towards clinically evaluating and commercializing their products.
“What happened was that they clinically developed those products, but didn’t take them to the final step,” Wilson said.
Funding for genetic cures is not sustainable, Wilson said, adding that banks would rather have people spend money on lifetime treatment versus just a one-and-done cure.
“So one way that the products I described to you already have justified an investment for the pharmaceutical companies is to charge a lot,” Wilson said. “The cost for an injection is anywhere between $2.1 to $3.6 billion.”
For impoverished countries with orphan diseases, the cost of therapies and cures is beyond reach. Wilson said there were “steps being taken” to make these products available in impoverished countries.
Throughout his lecture, Wilson said he wanted students to keep learning. Like his time in medical school in the hospitals, students should never take an opportunity for granted and always make the most of it.
“Don’t be shy about what you need to learn. It’s really been incredibly important, at least to get us where we are now,” Wilson said. “And we’re not done, we have these huge opportunities coming up.”