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Phil LoGrasso

Pushing Forward Against Parkinson’s

In his long and successful career as a scientist, Scripps Florida Professor Philip LoGrasso has pretty much done it all. Starting out at the pharmaceutical giant Merck, and later a small division within the company where he first became involved in the study of neuroscience, he then joined a start up biotechnology company in San Diego. From there, he moved to a New York City hedge fund as a health care analyst and then to the National Institutes of Health as a program director, where he was responsible for several hundred research grants worth approximately $50 million.

A nice set of accomplishments for a man who once told a recruiter the reason he picked science instead of baseball, his first love, because he wasn't a good enough third baseman.

"It has been a journey," he said. "I'm a big sports fan, and played baseball in high school. In baseball, nine guys win the game. When I was in grad school, I decided that I wanted to go into pharmaceutical research because you have to work as a team. The other thing I thought was that if I could get something in everybody's medicine cabinet that would help them get well, that would be a great goal.”

At Scripps Florida, Lo Grasso is a professor in the Molecular Therapeutics Department and senior director of drug discovery, positions he has held since 2005, soon after the campus’s founding.

At Scripps Florida, he says he has finally found the kind of place he was looking for all those years.

"Scripps Florida really is an all-in-one place," he said, "a perfect example of the entrepreneurial spirit of a small company coupled with great resources, such as the contribution of the State of Florida. We have an entrepreneurial way of doing science. What we don't have is a place where the funding source dictates the process. It's a perfect blend. It seemed that way when I first heard about it, and it has turned out exactly that way in reality."

Ironically, it was LoGrasso's work at Merck that first introduced him to one of his major—and ongoing—targets in drug discovery—the c-jun-N-terminal kinase 3 (JNK3), pronounced Junk. JNK3 signaling, an important contributor to stress-induced apoptosis (programmed cell death), has been shown to play a significant role in neuronal survival. As such, JNK3 is a valuable target for drugs to treat diseases such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and stroke.

LoGrasso once described the advantages of Scripps Florida as a trifecta a combination of drug discovery, advanced technology and basic research—with the added bonus that if researchers find the right compound, they have the option to develop it into a licensing opportunity—an opportunity that he made the most of two years ago.

OPKO Health, a Miami-based biotechnology company, licensed the rights to SR 3306, a novel compound discovered by LoGrasso that does exactly what he had hoped it would do, at least in animal models—it blocks the destruction of brains cells in Parkinson’s disease.

“This licensing agreement will help insure that the development of this promising compound keeps moving forward,” LoGrasso said. “This is one of the best opportunities we have for the development of an effective neuroprotective treatment for Parkinson’s patients.”

LoGrasso continues to have high expectations for JNK inhibitors. "It really is a blossoming area, one that has much more room to grow because of its potential utility in numerous diseases,” he said. “JNK1 inhibition could work in diabetes—and JNK3 and JNK1 inhibition could work very well in congestive heart failure, heart attack and stroke."

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"Scripps Florida really is an all-in-one place," says Professor Phil LoGrasso.