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TSRI Graduate and Postdoc Wins Prestigious Career Award

La Jolla, CA. June 14, 2002 - Stephen W. Santoro, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), has been selected as a recipient of a 2002 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences. The awards provide $500,000 over five years for young scientists, spanning the period that includes their advanced postdoctoral training and their early years as a faculty member of an academic research institution.

Santoro, who is a resident of Del Mar, is an alumnus of the graduate program TSRI.

"I am extremely honored to have been chosen to receive this award," says Santoro. "Burroughs Wellcome has a reputation for providing support to its awardees that extends throughout their entire scientific careers."

The awards are given annually by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, a private foundation whose mission is to advance the medical sciences by supporting research and other scientific and educational activities. They are intended to foster the development and productivity of biomedical researchers who are early in their careers and to help them make the critical transition from postdoctoral fellow to independent investigator.

"I am sure this is just [one of] the first of many important recognitions that Steve will receive throughout his scientific career," says TSRI Professor Peter Schultz, Ph.D., who was Santoro's sponsor for the award.

With the Schultz group, Santoro is currently studying the directed evolution of molecules, a Darwinian technique whereby a population of enzymes are modified in myriad ways and then selected for their ability to do something novel. The selected enzymes may then be exploited to take advantage of their emergent properties.

Some examples of this include the directed evolution of an enzyme called an aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase, which attaches amino acids to "transfer" tRNA enzymes - a necessary part of the stepwise assembly of a chain of amino acids into a protein. Santoro is part of a large group within Schultz's laboratory that has evolved aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases that attach novel amino acids to the tRNAs and make proteins the likes of which nature has never seen.

Santoro is also working to evolve a molecule called a site-specific recombinase, which is an enzyme that can insert or excise genes in precise locations. He hopes to be able to change this molecule's specificity - the exact location where it operates - and use it as an approach to target genes involved in various diseases.

"As our understanding of the genetic basis of disease improves," says Santoro, "I am convinced that it will be possible to use the techniques of protein evolution and engineering to exploit the unique advantages offered by gene-based approaches to therapy."

For his dissertation research, Santoro and his advisor, TSRI Professor Gerald Joyce, Ph.D., used directed evolution to design a functional DNA enzyme that was able to cleave RNA. Santoro graduated in 1999.

"Steve has the ideal combination of strong intellect, good hands at the bench, and unflagging determination," says Joyce. "I am delighted but not surprised that he has received this prestigious award."

Reaching the end of the first phase of his scientific career, Santoro is hopeful he can use everything he has learned at TSRI to study molecular communication in biology and perhaps to apply evolution to new kinds of molecules - ones that are neither DNA nor protein, but made up of completely unnatural building blocks.

TSRI was formed in 1961 with five investigators and a handful of staff. Since then, the institute has grown into the country's largest private, non-profit biomedical research organization. Its full- time faculty number over 275, including 14 members of the National Academy of Sciences and two Nobel laureates. Housed in over one million square feet of laboratory space, they are supported by more than 2,000 post-docs, technical and administrative employees.

The Burroughs Wellcome Company founded the Wellcome fund in 1955 as a corporate foundation, which operates today as a private, independent entity. The world's largest charitable foundation devoted exclusively to the biomedical sciences, the fund awards $35 million annually in the United States and Canada through competitive programs like the Career Awards in Biomedical Science.

At least two other TSRI-affiliated researchers have received awards from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Richard K. Bruick, who graduated from TSRI in 1998 and is now at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center-Dallas, also won a 2002 Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences. And TSRI Professor Mark J. Yeager, M.D., Ph.D., of the Department of Cell Biology was awarded a Burroughs Wellcome Clinical Scientist Award in Translational Research in 1998.


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