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Passing the torch

A shared life in research inspires $2.5 million gift to aid young scientists

Franklin and Lois Top (left) drew on their own experiences when making a gift to the Yale Scholars program started by Dean Robert Alpern (right) to help beginning scientists get a foothold in their fields.

When Franklin H. Top Jr., M.D., and his wife, Lois Top, M.N.Ed., paid a visit to the School of Medicine recently, it was a homecoming for them both. In the late 1950s, Lois was a nursing student at the University of Connecticut and living in a dormitory the program maintained then near Grace-New Haven Hospital (now Yale-New Haven Hospital), the hospital where she was born. Franklin, her husband-to-be, had earned an undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Yale College and was working toward his medical degree at the School of Medicine. “I needed a date for the Yale-Dartmouth game, so I went over to the UConn mixer,” Franklin recalls. “And that’s how we met.”

That meeting marked the beginning of an eventful life in biomedical research that would take the couple from New Haven to Minneapolis to Bethesda to Bangkok. Having each paid their dues at the lab bench, the Tops experienced firsthand the challenges of beginning a career in biomedical research. To help smooth the way for young scientists just entering the field, the couple recently made a $2.5 million gift to the School of Medicine to establish the Lois and Franklin Top, Jr. Yale Scholar. The Yale Scholars program is a recent initiative of Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., which provides four years of research funding to the most promising new researchers recruited at the medical school.

“To be able to take talent that’s already been recognized in a postdoctoral program and let that person run with it makes an awful lot of sense,” Franklin says. “If you want to encourage good people to get into this field, this is a good way of doing it.”

Lois agrees. “It’s really time-consuming to pursue a research career, and you can use all the help you can get, from ideas to funding to good lab space to do your work,” she says. “This should help alleviate some of the roadblocks.”

After Franklin graduated from the medical school in 1961, he completed his internship and residency in pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, where Lois also obtained a master’s degree in nursing education.

In 1966, Franklin joined the Army, where he spent 22 years doing infectious disease research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), including a three-year stint that he, Lois and their three young sons spent together in Thailand, where Franklin worked at a laboratory affiliated with the WRAIR.

Franklin eventually rose to the rank of colonel and served as director and commandant of the WRAIR. When the children were all in school, Lois joined the Metabolism Branch of The National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute, where she worked as a clinical research nurse on some of the earliest studies of gene therapy and on treatments for adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma.

But the most significant chapter in the Tops’ lives began in 1988, when Franklin retired from the Army to become executive vice president of a fledgling biotechnology company called Molecular Vaccines; two years later the company changed its name to MedImmune.

The company, based in Maryland, where the Tops now make their home in Rockville, went on to make biotech history in 1998 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved MedImmune’s Synagis, the first monoclonal antibody treatment for an infectious disease. Synagis is now the standard treatment to prevent serious illness from respiratory syncytial virus, a lung infection common in early childhood that can be dangerous to premature infants or children with heart or lung problems. Since then, MedImmune has successfully developed FluMist, a flu vaccine in nasal-spray form, and Ethyol, which protects cancer patients’ salivary gland against damage from radiation treatments.

In June, MedImmune was acquired by global pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca for $15.6 billion. The company will retain its name, and Franklin remains on board as executive vice president of MedImmune Ventures, which identifies companies that may be suitable for MedImmune partnerships or investments.

Franklin Top inherited his interest in medicine and in infectious disease from his father, Franklin H. Top Sr., M.D., who edited Communicable and Infectious Diseases, a leading textbook that saw nine editions published between 1955 and 1981.

“There have been huge changes in my lifetime,” Franklin says. “When I was an intern and resident, we were just beginning to influence childhood leukemia. We were not keeping children alive. We were giving them a longer duration of reasonably good health, but we always lost them. Now 85 percent of those children are essentially cured. In my own field, infectious diseases, most cases of childhood meningitis were caused by the pneumococcus or Haemophilus influenzae. As a result of good work—basic research and then applied development work—these infections are pretty well eliminated from the United States.”

The Tops believe that such accomplishments will occur at an even more rapid pace in the future. “We both appreciate the gains medical science has made in our lifetimes,” Franklin says. “We’d like to give back the fruits of our good experience with the Army and with MedImmune to keep that going.”

“It has been a pleasure for me to come to know Frank and Lois Top,” says Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine. “When I first met Frank, he told me of his deep gratitude to the School of Medicine, and when he and Lois recently acquired funds from the sale of MedImmune, they were swift in making a commitment to the Yale Scholars program. Frank’s accomplishments are a credit to the quality of the medical school’s educational program, and I am also very grateful that Frank has agreed to serve on the newly formed Dean’s Council, providing us with sage advice based on his many experiences over the years.”