Army scientist recalls six decades of inquiry, breakthroughs
September 11, 2012
- "Soldiers who come back with a lost limb may be able to have them re-grown. That's the ultimate advance that we're looking for."
- "When I went to school, nerve cells didn't regenerate. That's what I was taught. Now we're doing it in our labs right here."
- "Most of the things we do now will not only help the military, but it will serve a dual purpose -- it will help civilians as well."
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- After more than 60 years as a researcher, educator and mentor, Harry Salem remains committed to advancing the field of science in the U.S. Army.
Salem's talents and expertise led to an already distinguished career spanning three decades in pharmacology and toxicology -- including the development of the cold and cough remedies NyQuil and Contac as well as the extended-wear soft contact lens Permalens -- all before joining the Army as a civilian scientist in 1984.
In his current role as the chief scientist of life sciences, Salem oversees and guides research efforts at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center. He has recently created a Center of Excellence for Stem Cell Research, recruiting 12 post-doctoral students to help embark on his vision.
PROMISING RESEARCH IN STEM CELLS
Stem-cell research holds the greatest opportunity for advancements in medicine, according to Salem.
"Stem cells are the future of medicine," he said. "I can see the potential of this, not only in regenerative medicine, but also in testing for safety and efficacy and medical mitigation, including all aspects of pharmacology, toxicology and medicine."
Historically, cellular-based testing has been conducted on immortalized tumor cell lines, Salem said. These are cells that have had tumor genes introduced into them to make them immortal and able to survive in cell culture outside the body.
Salem's researchers have recently acquired a novel in vitro technology in which they are able to convert samples of human skin and blood cells into new kinds of stem cells known as induced pluripotent stem cells. IPS cells are artificially derived, typically from an adult somatic cell, by forcing the expression of specific genes that cause them to differentiate into a particular cell type, Salem said.
Salem emphasizes that his group does not use human embryonic stem cells, which are isolated from embryos and embroiled in ethical controversy.
One of Salem's scientists spent a year at Johns Hopkins University learning the latest techniques in IPS cell technology in order to initiate the stem cell work at ECBC laboratories.
"In the last year we have transitioned the technique to our laboratories so we're actually doing it here at ECBC. We're making the cells here and getting ready to use them for testing," Salem said. "We can now make tissues of different organs from stem cells."
The National Research Council Post-Doctoral Program, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and ECBC are sponsoring Salem's work on the lungs, liver and heart. He is looking to expand the laboratory's research with additional organs and to involve more scientists so the team has an expert on each organ of interest.
According to Salem, the Army is partnering in this field with Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, University of Michigan, Wake Forest University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Regenerative medicine is one of the promising areas the Army and its partners are pursuing. Salem believes the research could benefit the military as well as civilians.
"Soldiers who come back with a lost limb may be able to have them re-grown. That's the ultimate advance that we're looking for," he said. "That's one of the hopes we have.
"Wake Forest has made stem cell bladders and implanted them in children. They have been functioning for several years. Perhaps a lot of diseased organs can be replaced. Most of the things we do now will not only help the military, but it will serve a dual purpose -- it will help civilians as well."
FAMILY ILLNESS PROMPTS INTEREST IN SCIENCE
At the age of 8, Salem was confronted with his maternal grandmother's unexpected illness. He described the profound impact her diagnosis would have on his academic endeavors and professional career.
"My maternal grandmother lived with us. All of a sudden, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis without any visible signs or symptoms. She was abruptly taken from our house, and that was it," he recalls. "She was put in a sanatorium, which was quite a distance from where we lived.
"At my age, I was not allowed in the sanitarium. I could only look through the window, and somebody had to lift me up so I could see my grandmother. One day as I was looking through that window, I vowed that someday I would do scientific research, not knowing what it really was, to prevent or cure lung diseases. That's when I decided I would like to do it. It seems like my life was steered in that direction."
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, Salem earned a bachelor of arts in general sciences at the University of Western Ontario in 1950. After visiting his older brother during a football weekend at the University of Michigan, Salem enrolled there, where he earned a bachelor of science in pharmacy in 1953.
Salem recalled an experiment during his third year at Michigan that spurred his passion for pharmacology.
"I still remember the experiment that made me fall in love with pharmacology. They put a cat in a bell jar, and then put a mouse into its space. The cat immediately attacked the mouse. At the time they were working on mind-boggling drugs, and they injected the cat [with a drug]. Then they put a mouse in its space, and the cat ignored it completely. That's what hooked me," Salem said.
Salem then returned to Canada for his graduate studies in pharmacology at the University of Toronto, where he earned a master's degree in 1955 and a doctorate in 1958.
Salem's master's degree thesis work included the initial evaluation of the breathalyzer blood-alcohol level test. The equipment used by police to check drivers' sobriety was quite advanced, although their method for capturing exhaled breath was rather rudimentary, he said.
At that time, when the police investigated an accident or caught someone suspected of driving under the influence, the driver or suspect would blow into a rubber balloon.
"They took these latex balloons to the police station, and when tested, there was no alcohol there. The policeman would swear, 'I could smell the alcohol. The guy was drunk. I know it.' But there was no alcohol, so they couldn't do anything," Salem said. "We looked at other plastics, and what we found was the alcohol was passing through the rubber of the balloon and dissipating into the air. We developed a polyethylene plastic bag for them to blow into. The half life for alcohol was about five hours in the polyethylene plastic bags versus 15 minutes in the rubber balloons.
"Later on when Saran Wrap was developed, we fabricated a Saran plastic bag that you blew right through. It collected the alveolar air, the last portion of air exhaled, and that was correlated with the amount of alcohol in the blood. The half life for alcohol in the saran bag was about 24 hours."
A LIFETIME DEVOTED TO ADVANCING SCIENCE
After earning his doctorate in 1958, Salem held positions in industry and academia, where he developed a strong reputation as a researcher and educator. His successes include incubators for premature babies, a labor induction drug, drugs for the common cold and cough, and continuous wear soft contact lenses.
While working for Smith Kline and French, Salem directed the respiratory research laboratories for the Menley and James Division, where he participated on the team that developed Contac.
Later, he joined Richardson-Merrell National Drug Company in Philadelphia, where he led the respiratory research laboratory for a subsidiary, Vicks. In this position, he was on the successful team that developed NyQuil.
"In those days we joked, 'We have a NyQuil. Why don't we have a DayQuil?' Thirty years later, there is a product called DayQuil," Salem said.
Salem also taught pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Toronto, University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Drexel University, University of Maryland and Rutgers University, where he is still a visiting professor. He has published 13 books, including three volumes of the International Encyclopedia of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, as well as more than 100 papers in scientific journals.
In addition to his research for the Army over the past 28 years, Salem has served as a consultant for federal government organizations, including the U.S. attorney general, FBI, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Homeland Security and Congress.
In 1993, he advised then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno as she considered options to intervene at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
"The FBI took me down to visit with [Reno]. When she came into the room, I didn't know whether I was going to brief her or just answer questions," Salem said. "She came in and started firing questions, and I responded. She was direct. I was very impressed with her and the way she worked. I told her all about the riot-control agents that we had worked with.
"I gave her good, sound scientific advice. She asked me to appear with her on '60 Minutes,' but the Department of Defense thought better of that. I did not appear, although she said very nice things about me on television."
For the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Salem served as the chairman of the pharmacy committee for the Office of Emergency Preparedness of the National Disaster Medical System.
In 2001, Salem was awarded the Society of Toxicology Congressional Science Fellowship and spent a year on Capitol Hill as a Congressional adviser. He worked in the office of U.S. Rep. Jim Greenwood, who was chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and responsible for oversight and inspection of the National Institutes of Health and EPA.
Salem recalled the events of 9/11.
"On Sept. 11, 2001, Greenwood had called for a bioterrorism hearing. I was on the way to the hearing room when the first plane hit. I was sent back to my office, and I saw the second plane hit on television," he said.
Salem said he still wears the American flag pin, which was given to him by his Congressional colleagues shortly after 9/11, on his suit jacket.
LEADING FUTURE GENERATIONS OF SCIENTISTS
As Salem discussed his work over 60 years, he reflected on the legacy left for future generations. He spoke fondly of his post-doctoral scientists and colleagues.
"I hope I've inspired the young people to continue doing research. Don't be afraid of learning something new," he said. "When I went to school, nerve cells didn't regenerate. That's what I was taught. Now we're doing it in our labs right here. That's exciting.
"I want to leave a legacy. My boss once said to me, 'Everybody knows who I am. It's up to me to make sure they know who you are.' "