Scripps Florida Introduces Innovative Programs and Recruits World-Class Scientists

By Jason Socrates Bardi

The Scripps Research Institute has announced the formation of several innovative research programs at its Scripps Florida facility in Palm Beach County.

The new programs indicate the depth and scope of the scientific research that will be undertaken at Scripps Florida. They include developing cutting-edge technologies to enable scientists to examine the basic biology of human health and applying those technologies to find new and better treatments for a variety of devastating human diseases.

"Scripps Florida's scientific programs are uniquely geared to answer some of the most important questions in biology and medicine," says Richard A. Lerner, president of The Scripps Research Institute, where he is also the Lita Annenberg Hazen Professor of Immunochemistry and holds the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Chair in Chemistry. "Our researchers will be addressing diseases such as AIDS, cancer, diabetes, obesity, mad cow disease, Parkinson's, and schizophrenia, to name just a few."

Scripps Research also announced the appointments of 17 highly accomplished and acclaimed scientists who will carry out much of the research in these new programs at Scripps Florida. The scientists are drawn from some of the best academic institutes and private companies in the world, including Harvard Medical School, Florida State University, Vanderbilt University, the University of Virginia, Yale University School of Medicine, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, Merck & Co., Pfizer Inc., and others.

"It speaks well of Scripps Florida's future success that at this early stage we are able to recruit such top-rate scientific talent," says Steve Kay, who is professor of cell biology at Scripps Research La Jolla campus and vice-chair of the steering committee for Scripps Florida.

The New Research Programs

•THE GENETIC DISEASE INFORMATICS PROGRAM will seek to manage and mine the wealth of scientific data generated over the last decade from massive projects such as the Human Genome Project. The research will employ human and model organism genetics and genomics data to derive networks of interacting genes in order to identify key intervention points that will aid in the discovery of novel human therapeutics. These networks will include genes that undergo "alternative splicing," where a single DNA gene might produce a variety of RNA transcripts, each encoding a different protein. Some of these differences may account for different disease states, including inflammatory and metabolic diseases.

Nikos Tsinoremas (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Leeds, England), who arrived at Scripps Florida last month, will lead the program. Tsinoremas has worked for a number of leading biotechnology companies, including serving most recently as director of Computational Genomics and Genomic Discovery at Rosetta/Merck in Seattle, Washington.

•THE GENETICS OF COMPLEX DISEASES PROGRAM will seek to identify unknown genes and to study known genes that affect behavior, particularly learning and memory. It will address how multiple genes work together to affect behavioral functions and how variations in these gene sequences contribute to late-onset diseases, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Mathew Pletcher (Ph.D., Human Genetics, Johns Hopkins University), who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation in La Jolla, California, will arrive at Scripps Florida in November to conduct research in this program area.

•THE CANCER BIOLOGY PROGRAM will focus on the cell cycle—that essential biological process whereby cells divide. Researchers will look for ways to understand and address the health problems that arise when cells lose their ability to divide, are injured (such as in traumatic head injuries), or divide too much (such as in cancer).

Nagi George Ayad (Ph.D., Cell Biology, Yale Medical School) will arrive at Scripps Florida as an Assistant Professor at the end of the year after completing his postdoctoral research at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

•THE INFECTOLOGY DEPARTMENT PROGRAM is focusing on prion diseases (spongiform encephalopathies such as mad cow disease and its human cousin, variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease). Investigators are studying the nature and components of infectious prions, asking such questions as how prions are transmitted from cell to cell and which genes contribute to susceptibility or resistance to prion infections.

Preeminent Scripps Florida scientist Charles Weissmann is the head of the Infectology Department and is now joined by four young researchers.

Christopher Baker (Ph.D., Neuroscience, Yale University) arrived at Scripps Florida in April of this year, after completing his postdoctoral research at Yale University.

Peter-Christian Kloehn (Ph.D., Department of Toxicology, Julius-Maximilians-University, Würzburg, Germany) and Sukhvir Mahal (Ph.D., Neurogenetics Department, Imperial College School of Medicine, University of London) arrive at Scripps Florida later in the summer after completing their postdoctoral research fellowships at University College London's Institute of Neurology.

Prem S. Subramaniam (Ph.D., Microbiology, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL) will join the Department on September 1.

•THE PROTEOMICS PROGRAM will focus on developing and applying advanced technologies in mass spectrometry-based proteomics. Proteomics is the field that examines the expression and action of the gene products (proteins) in different cell types and states, and the Proteomics Program will focus on such questions as how proteins are modified by cells in certain diseases.

Jennifer Caldwell Busby (Ph.D., Chemistry, University of Virginia) will join Scripps Florida later this year as the associate director of proteomics. Caldwell Busby was previously the senior research scientist at MDS Proteomics in Charlottesville, VA.

•THE NUCLEAR HORMONE RECEPTORS PROGRAM will look at how drugs and other chemicals bind to human proteins called nuclear hormone receptors—a broad class of cellular receptors involved in diabetes and a number of other diseases. Investigators in the program will aim to understand how nuclear hormone receptors interact with the chemicals that bind to them, hoping to understand the mechanism of action of these proteins and determine how they are involved in processes like inflammation and insulin resistance. They will also aim to develop rapid assays to study the three-dimensional interactions of nuclear hormone receptors with any number of chemicals so that these chemicals can be quickly screened for their potential as candidates for new anti-inflammatory drugs and better drugs for type-2 diabetes.

Patrick Griffin, who is professor and head of drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics in the Scripps Florida Division of Drug Discovery and came to Scripps Florida in May from ExSAR Corporation in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey, will lead the Nuclear Hormone Receptors Program. He is joined by two other young researchers.

Scott Busby (Ph.D., Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, SUNY at Stony Brook) will arrive at Scripps Florida shortly, having just completed his postdoctoral research at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA.

Michael Chalmers (Ph.D., Chemistry, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, UK), who has just completed his postdoctoral research at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory site at Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL, will start in early September.

•THE DRUG METABOLISM AND PHARMACOKINETICS PROGRAM will provide many of the other research programs with the tools needed to support the development of new drugs. Drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics make up a broad area important to drug research that looks at such factors as how soluble and stable a drug candidate is, how rapidly a potential drug is cleared from the body, how a potential drug interacts with enzymes in the intestines and liver, and how well a drug candidate crosses the blood-brain barrier.

Griffin, who also leads the Nuclear Hormone Receptors Program, will be heading this research program and will be joined by another scientist.

Li Lin (M.S., Analytical Chemistry, University of Georgia) will start work at Scripps Florida in September. Lin has more than 12 years of experience in analytical chemistry at a number of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, including Pfizer Inc. (Agouron Pharmaceuticals) in La Jolla, CA.

•THE DIABETES AND OBESITY PROGRAM will combine functional neuroanatomy with genetics to focus on the neural circuits and chemicals in the brain that underlie changes in appetite and metabolism. This program includes studies of these circuitries recruited in both health and disease (infection or chronic illness).

Teresa Reyes will lead the Diabetes and Obesity Program. She will join Scripps Florida in October as an assistant professor after finishing her advanced postdoctoral studies at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla.

•THE MEDICINAL CHEMISTRY PROGRAM will be generating compounds to test for activity against diseases such as cancer and arthritis.

Chris Liang, who started at Scripps Florida earlier in the summer as associate director of the Division of Drug Discovery, will lead the protein kinase lead discovery effort within the Medicinal Chemistry Program. He is joined by three young researchers who are already at Scripps Florida.

Marcel Koenig (Ph.D., Chemistry, ETH Zurich, Switzerland) comes to Scripps Florida from ARYx Therapeutics, Inc., in Santa Clara, California.

Yangbo Feng (Ph.D., Organic Chemistry, University of California, San Diego), was previously a staff scientist in the ChemRx Division at Discovery Partners International in San Diego, California.

Tomas Vojkovsky (M.S., Chemistry, Harvard University) has worked as a professional chemist at a wide variety of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, including Celera Genomics and Pharmacia-Pfizer.

•THE CELL-BASED SCREENING PROGRAM will develop and apply assays that allow scientists to systematically evaluate gene function and the effects of small molecules in living cells, thereby providing a baseline of annotation of gene function as well as providing useful chemical probes for understanding important cellular pathways. These technologies will be integrated with other technologies such as informatics, RNA expression dynamics, genetics, and proteomics to select promising disease or pathway targets for further study.

John Hogenesch, who is associate professor and head of Genome Technology at Scripps Florida, will lead the Cell-Based Screening Program and is joined by two researchers.

Josephine Harada (Ph.D., Molecular Biology, University of California, Los Angeles), who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation in La Jolla, California will arrive at Scripps Florida in October.

Trey Sato (Ph.D., Biomedical Sciences, University of California, San Diego), who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at The Scripps Research Institute's La Jolla Campus, will arrive at Scripps Florida in December.

•THE HIV THERAPEUTICS PROGRAM will be geared towards designing synthetic peptide-based inhibitors against pathogens such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which prevent the virus from replicating.

James Tam (Ph.D., Medicinal Chemistry, University of Wisconsin, Madison), will head the HIV Therapeutics Program and arrives at Scripps Florida later this year after more than a decade as a distinguished chemist and professor in Vanderbilt University's Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Biochemistry in Nashville, Tennessee.

Scripps Florida will be a 364,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art biomedical research facility in Palm Beach County. Palm Beach County and the State of Florida have provided start-up economic packages for development, building, staffing, and equipping the campus, scheduled to open in late 2006. Scripps Florida is now operating out of 8,000 square-foot lab facilities on the Florida Atlantic University Boca Raton campus. It will move in early 2005 to a 41,000 square-foot facility now being built by the university on its Jupiter campus.


On the News&Views home page: Some of the new faces at Scripps Florida include Tomas Vojkovsky, Yangbo Feng, Nagi G. Ayad (top, left to right), Josephine Harada, Marcel Koenig, and Chalmers Michael (bottom, left to right).


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"Our researchers will be addressing diseases such as AIDS, cancer, diabetes, obesity, mad cow disease, Parkinson's, and schizophrenia, to name just a few."

—Richard A. Lerner