Looking Ahead: An Interview with Michael A. Marletta
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Looking Ahead: An Interview with Michael A. Marletta

On January 1, Michael A. Marletta took office as president and CEO of The Scripps Research Institute. Here, he speaks with Mika Ono of News&Views about topics including his background, priorities, and vision for the future.

What led you to The Scripps Research Institute?

Twenty years ago, Scripps offered me a position. I was at the University of Michigan at the time. I thought long and hard about it, and decided I still enjoyed the full spectrum of a complicated university with many thousands of undergraduates. Just over 10 years ago, I moved to UC Berkeley. At Berkeley, I served as chair of the chemistry department for five years and found I enjoyed leading a complex and driven diverse group of people. A few times over the years, Richard Lerner [former president] would say, “Look, if you are ready to make a move…” I visited Scripps a number of times, and I’ve always admired the place. So when this opportunity came along, I thought it was a long shot but I applied.

What excites you about the job as president?

I’m excited about the potential of learning how biology works and applying that knowledge to medical problems—and that’s really being excited about the mission of The Scripps Research Institute. Others at Scripps are excited about that, too, and that’s great.

You’ve been here since July. What are some of your first impressions of the institute?

The most encouraging thing I learned is that, in general, the faculty and staff have an intense devotion to this place. I walked into Beckman the other day and the security guard at the desk, Marcus Bilbee, and I struck up a conversation, and it was clear he cares a lot. When the faculty start to talk about what they have been able to discover here, it’s clear they have an attachment. That has been deeper and more intense than I expected. That is going to help us in the long run. No place is perfect. Scripps has its challenges, areas for improvement. But if you feel strongly about the place where you work, you are willing to help and be part of the solution.

What are the biggest challenges you see?

There are financial pressures. Scripps is a soft-money institution. One question I could ask in return is, “Why do faculty come to Scripps?” They could stay in a university and, even with no research support, collect nine months of salary for teaching. But for that, their days would be broken up with all kinds of university responsibilities. I did those for many years. Some of those are enjoyable, but sometimes they take you away from research when you would rather sit in a lab talking to students about a particular result. At Scripps, you can come in at the beginning of the day and if somebody finds something unexpected or a big experiment works, you could spend all day thinking about it, talking about it, writing about it…  That never happens in a university environment. Faculty come here because they can do unencumbered research. For that, there’s the risk of raising money to fund the research you want to do. Faculty also come and stay because of the infrastructure here—the very best in equipment.

So we need to generate resources to keep that infrastructure at the highest level. We need to generate resources to recruit the next generation of new faculty. We need to have resources to keep our faculty who will get offers from other places. While there are different issues in Florida, in La Jolla the financial pressures are significant. We have had long-time relationships with “big pharma” that are not going to be repeated in the current environment. Florida is still in the growth phase, still with money from the State of Florida, so there is empty space because we are still recruiting principle investigators. We’re on track to meet the Florida benchmarks.

All of this boils down to the fact that the biggest issue facing us is how to move forward in a situation where the federal government will not be the partner it has been in the past. That will put even more pressure on us to raise internal funds. We’re looking at a combination of philanthropy and a return on our investment in intellectual property [IP]. IP is going to ramp up. Not having a first-rights agreement as we have had in the past will make us look farther into the future for financial benefit from our IP, but we will own all of what we discover here and that should be a direct benefit to us.

Could you talk a little more about philanthropy? Why should people give here versus elsewhere?

People give because there is something about what we are doing that strikes a chord in them. Each of us can rattle off parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins who suffered from some disease. It’s just inevitable. When disease strikes, we often like to do something about it. It’s one of the common aspects of private giving here. Donors hear about what we’re doing and want to support it. Of course, we have to tell them what we’re doing, and I’m spending some of my time doing that. Sometimes what strikes a chord is an individual they meet, say a faculty member working on a particular disease. When they make a contribution, they have the opportunity to see that person be successful, working on something they believe in or a disease they want to see wiped out. So it’s often deeply personal. That’s why philanthropy is all about relationships—listening to what potential donors find interesting and then showing them we have the potential to make a major discovery that they can be a part of.

Isn’t basic research somewhat of a double-edged sword—you’re years away from medically applied research, although the fundamental discovery may ultimately have a larger impact?

I actually don’t agree with that. Let’s use the recent example of Jeff Kelly’s tafamidis [now approved in Europe for the treatment of familial amyloid polyneuropathy]. At the heart of it, I’d say Jeff probably has two passions. One is to come up with a drug that helps treat disease. He’s just done that. But the other passion is for the science itself. So Jeff’s driving force was understanding how proteins fold, and when they misfold what happens—very basic, fundamental work, but also necessary to make a drug. Benlysta® is the only treatment for lupus, a very complicated disease. Richard Lerner’s antibodies are the technology that drug was based on. There was Humira® before that. Humira® will soon be the largest selling drug in the world.

To me, Scripps represents the very best in fundamental research coupled with looking outward for the translational piece, which takes fundamental discovery and turns it into drugs. When I was at Michigan, in the medical school’s biological chemistry department, the clinicians would say, “You’re so far away from [the clinic].” It appeared more like that then, because you made a fundamental discovery, you published it, and that was more or less the end of it. But at Scripps, it’s not just about basic discovery, but also what can you can do with it. That’s different. I tell donors what our fundamental discoveries can do. I tell them we are about discovery—that’s what we do—but we don’t let it rest there, and we’ve got examples to show it. Here, basic research and potential applications go hand-in-hand.

Your own work has bridged fundamental discovery and medical application.

We started a company. My father said I finally must have done something important! We spent years trying to understand the remarkable finding that a molecule such as nitric oxide, this toxic molecule, is regulating blood pressure and is involved in learning, in memory. Everything in moderation; a glass of wine is good, 10 is probably bad. It’s the same with a molecule like nitric oxide. Biology has learned how to handle it. It’s extremely toxic, yet we’re making it and using it in some important physiological processes. It just turns out we don’t make very much of it. Over the years, we asked questions about how biology handles such a toxic molecule to carry out these important physiological processes. We then started to ask how biology tells the difference between nitric oxide, carbon monoxide, and oxygen. Biology has to look at all three and tell the difference from a chemical perspective, and it’s not so easy. In figuring that out, we realized that we could use our fundamental understanding to deliver nitric oxide or carbon monoxide or oxygen to particular tissues, and there are good, practical reasons for wanting to do all three. So we wrote some patents, and there’s a little company [Omniox] that’s operating right now in San Francisco. Hopefully, it will be successful.

How did you get interested in science in the first place?

I have a 16-year old. I watched him when he was a baby. Every kid is a scientist. They are all trying to figure out the world—whether they are lying on the floor and whacking at something or trying to figure out where the ball is going to go when it rolls across the floor. I found it interesting to watch him. I thought about myself and from my earliest memories, I always wanted to know how things work. But the catalyzing moment was October 4, 1957, when I was six years old and the Soviets launched Sputnik. I was six, so I was too young to be afraid. This was in upstate New York. It was pretty cold as I remember it, an October night, and I put on a heavy jacket and went out and stood on the front lawn of the little house we lived in and watched Sputnik fly over. Even though I didn’t understand there was engineering and science at the time, I became convinced that whatever that was I wanted to be a part of it. Christmas was right around the corner, so I asked for a telescope. Since I was six, I guess it would have been Santa who brought it to me. Then the next year, I asked for a microscope and I got that. And the next year I asked for a chemistry set, a Gilbert chemistry set, and I didn’t get that. My father was worried I was going to blow up the house, although there was nothing you can blow up with a Gilbert chemistry set. But by this time, it was maybe 1960 and you could still buy a lot of chemicals, which I did because I had a paper route. I built my own lab and I almost did blow up the house… I was always fascinated by the periodic table and the idea that everything on this planet was composed of those elements, and you could mix and match them to make things already in nature or make new things with properties nobody expected. I thought that was it. Then I took a biology course and realized that the master chemist is biology. Since then I’ve been walking between the two worlds.

Is it too early to ask you your vision of Scripps?

It’s a little early, but people have asked. As I mentioned, you have to have the best infrastructure possible. You’ve got really smart people who already have great ideas. You need to recognize talent, keep the best talent, and then basically get out of the way.

That said, I think that it would be important for Scripps to engage in serious issues in human health. I would like us to work on some big problems, like the combination of obesity and metabolic diseases like diabetes. We already have people working in these areas, but there is some opportunity. As enzymologists—I would describe myself as an enzymologist—we study one enzyme in a test tube, one at a time. We understand a lot, but when you put that one enzyme with a thousand others all working together in us, it doesn’t quite work like it works in a test tube. So, in fact, we’re talking about metabolism, an old moniker. When you think about the spectrum of metabolic diseases, they include not only diabetes and aspects of obesity, but also cancer, which is now being reinterpreted as something called the Warburg effect—oxygen consumption by cancer cells. I would like us to be as good at metabolomics as we are at proteomics—where we are one of the best in the world due to our investment in talent and infrastructure. With infrastructure in metabolomics, not only can our faculty take advantage of these resources, we’ll also be able to tackle diseases that confront the Western world. If we don’t solve those problems, as a society we’re going to have an albatross around our neck. We need to understand the processes, and we need to do something about those diseases. So, I see investment in that kind of infrastructure and then doing what I do best, which is 1) taking advantage of it in my own research, and 2) getting out of the way.

Are there any other messages you want to get out there to employees, to donors, to faculty?

I mostly want people to know I’m excited. The more I learn about Scripps, the more excited I am. Also, I’m going to work hard to make sure that Scripps remains the kind of institution that it has been and moves forward with new discoveries, but I need everybody’s help—faculty and staff—everybody.

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Michael A. Marletta took office as president and CEO of The Scripps Research Institute on January 1. (Photo by Dave Freeman, BioMedical Graphics.)