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Scientist Profile - Paul Schimmel

Academician and Entrepreneur

Scripps Research Professor Paul Schimmel, Ph.D., is both a preeminent scientist and the co-founder of successful biotechnology companies. He has a passion for transforming revelations discovered in the laboratory and turning them into products that improve human lives in such areas as alcoholism, schizophrenia, autism, vision loss, AIDS, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Paul is the Ernest and Jean Hahn Professor at the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at Scripps Research. Formerly, he was the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics in the Department of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His major research activities have concentrated on the decoding of genetic information, with an emphasis on the rules of the universal genetic code which are established through aminoacylation reactions catalyzed by a group of enzymes known as tRNA synthetases, believed by many to be among the first enzymes in evolution.

Paul and his wife, Cleo, were undergraduates together at Ohio Wesleyan University with George Conrades - chairman of Akamai Technologies, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a former Scripps Research trustee - and George's wife, Patsy, a former nurse practitioner. Together, the Schimmel and Conrades couples have been honored by the naming of a science building at the university.

In 1988, Paul's laboratory uncovered what has been referred to as an early, "second genetic code" that related specific sequences and structures in small RNA to specific aminoacylations. At the time, the work was widely discussed and described in newspapers and magazines throughout the world: the RNA code is considered to give critical insights into the development of the modern genetic code and protein synthesis.

In a separate line of research published in 1983, Paul developed the concept of what are now known as ESTs (expressed sequence tags) and the strategy of shotgun sequencing, approaches that later were adopted for the human genome project. ESTs provide a way to identify all genes that are expressed in a specific tissue, such as muscle. Nature magazine described Paul's work on the development of EST as one of the four key developments that launched the human genome project.

"New discoveries and new medicines excite me," says Paul. "As an academician, resources tend to be limited as the government and private funders typically support discovery and education as opposed to the development of drugs. So, in academia, you might get $2 million in support to oversee a lab, whereas the same person in the private sector can get as much as $20 million to $30 million per year in support."

"But basic research and the genetic code are my first loves, and in our lab at Scripps Research, we try to understand how the first living systems appeared on the planet," he continues. "We've come so far in understanding how life arose. It's exciting to turn the clock back and discover things that represent the footprints of the past ... it keeps me awake at night. We've also made some discoveries in angiogenesis, the control of blood vessel growth. And basic research has wonderful byproducts in terms of eventual cures for ailments such as AIDS, alcoholism, and depression."

In 1987, Paul Schimmel and Scripps Research Professor Emeritus Floyd E. Bloom, M.D., co-founded the biotech firm Alkermes with a small initial investment. Paul was heavily involved in setting up the first labs. "The idea was to work on the delivery of drugs to the brain without having to drill into the brain," said Paul.

The company grew, but Paul has remained a director. It has now developed a drug with sustained release and delivery capabilities for diseases such as schizophrenia. "You take it once and it lasts two to three weeks ... the benefits to the patient and society are enormous. It's pretty new, and we'll see a lot more of this type of drug in the future. We're currently working on an inhalable form of insulin and a sustainable release drug for alcoholism."

Another one of Paul's startup firms, Alnylam, is currently working with a new technology known as RNA interference, which has applications to many diseases including the flu. A third firm, Cubist Pharmaceuticals, which Paul started with Julius Rebek, Ph.D. -- director of the Skaggs Institute at Scripps Research, when they were both at MIT -- has developed an antibiotic for treating drug-resistant infections. That drug, known as Cubicin, is used widely in hospitals.

Paul's entrepreneurial streak began as a teenager when he saved up his paper route money and almost lost it all in the stock market. He attributes his adventurous streak to his mother. "Her philosophy was that you had to let people become who they are. At 15, I was out all night on the streets of New York, at baseball games, riding the subways, in Harlem." Paul owes his creativity to his father, who was a musician, an avocation that Paul also enjoys. "My deep immersion in music has made me a better scientist, through its freedom, being uplifted, and trying new things."

"Biology is actually a 'social science'," said Paul. "Science is advanced through phone calls and meetings with colleagues ... by people dynamically merging ideas together. It's a major mechanism of creativity and productivity."

Among numerous honors, Paul has won the American Chemical Society's Pfizer Award in Enzyme Chemistry and is co-recipient of the Biophysical Society's Emily M. Gray Award for contributions to education in biophysics. He has been elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Philosophical Society.