One of the nation’s top experts on how human disease develops has been named the new president of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, which is undergoing a historic expansion designed to help scientists identify conditions as diverse as cancer and dementia. demystify.
Gerald Joyce, the institute’s chief science officer, will replace geneticist Rusty Gage, who returns to the lab after significantly improving the Salk’s financial health and addressing faculty turmoil related to sex discrimination allegations. calmed down.
This story is for subscribers
We offer subscribers exclusive access to our best journalism.
Thank you for your support.
The institute’s trustees said the 66-year-old biochemist is the perfect choice for the job because he has deep experience in basic research and drug discovery, as well as a gift for fundraising and recruiting talent in the brutally competitive industry. , ever growing of the country. life sciences industry.
He has “deep boots to follow Rusty, but he’s positioned so well for this, and he’s incredibly thoughtful and personable,” said Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, a member of the institute’s board of trustees and an major donor.
The appointment comes at a pivotal time in the 63-year history of the Salk, which bears the name of the late Jonas Salk, who developed the first effective, widely used vaccine against the poliovirus.
Joyce told the Union-Tribune that the Salk has scrapped plans to try to raise $500 million over five years and will now seek $750 million over seven years, completing the campaign in 2028.
About $250 million of that money will be used to build and operate a major science and technology center on North Torrey Pines Road, where science institutes, businesses and UC San Diego are growing so rapidly. there never seems to be enough room for all the people and equipment.
The remaining millions will be used, for example, to increase the size of the faculty by about 10, increase it to 60, and deepen the work the Salk is doing in cancer, aging, neurodegenerative diseases, and plant biology.
The Salk is a relatively small institution, but has been there regularly arranged one of the top life science centers in the country, founded by star researchers such as Joanne Chory and Ron Evans, as well as Tony Hunter, whose research led to the successful cancer drug Gleevec.
The Salk will do all of this while remaining focused on basic research, rather than emulating other biomedical centers that have expanded into the precious world of drug discovery and clinical trials.
The private institute “is going to do what Salk does best, which is to make fundamental discoveries that are absolutely relevant to what will become medicines that address unmet medical needs,” said Joyce, who is such a “Salkie” that he and his wife, psychiatrist Nancy McTigue, in the center courtyard.
Joyce is a so-called mud-fud. He has both a medical degree and a doctorate, both of which he received from UC San Diego. He then became a researcher at the Salk, working under Leslie Orgel, who shook up science by suggesting that all life on Earth initially arose from RNA rather than DNA or proteins. The hypothesis is now widely accepted in science.
Joyce then transferred to Scripps Research in La Jolla, where he conducted research and served as dean of the faculty. He then oversaw drug discovery at the Novartis Research Foundation’s Genomics Institute in La Jolla for seven years. He returned to the Salk in 2017. He will assume the presidency in April.
His research has focused on the origin of life and evolution, primarily through the study of RNA, which scientists believe originated before DNA and proteins.
“It’s the ancestral molecule of life,” Joyce said Friday, smiling broadly at the magnitude of it all.
This work led Joyce to propose a working definition of life commonly used by NASA: “Life is a self-sustaining system capable of Darwinian evolution.”
Investigating how RNA plays a role in life and evolution has led to life-saving advances. Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech used so-called messenger RNA to make COVID-19 vaccines. Related research led to a drug to combat high LDL, the “bad cholesterol” that can lead to heart attack or stroke.
Scientists are increasingly turning to RNA itself in ways that could help in the fight against cancer, a family of diseases that will kill more than 600,000 people in the US by 2020.
Joyce’s return to the Salk in 2017 came during one of the worst spells in the institute’s history.
Three female scientists have filed lawsuits alleging they were subjected to gender discrimination. Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, then president of the Salk, accepted the prize highly unusual step to publicly question the quality and quantity of the work of two of the women. Many top scientists sharply criticized her for the move, including Carol Greider, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Blackburn.
The three women settled out of court and Blackburn announced she would retire much earlier than expected. Ted Waitt also stepped down as chairman of the board of trustees, for reasons that are not entirely clear, raising more questions about Salk’s leadership.
During that period, the institute publicly said it was doing well financially. But the Union-Tribune obtained private Salk documents stating that it faced “frighteningmoney problems.
The document also said the institute had been exploring whether it would change its official name if a private donor was willing to contribute more than $1 billion. De Salk later said the idea was just something tossed around during brainstorming sessions and not seriously considered.
Gage, who was famous for helping to prove that adult humans can generate new brain cells, was named president and asked to get the institute back on track.
He has been widely praised for his work, especially fundraising. In 2020, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos gave the Salk $30 million to help scientists explore ways to get plants to store more carbon in the soil as a way to combat climate change.
The following year, Jacobs announced that he would provide up to $100 million in matching funds to help build the science and technology center. Construction is expected to start in the spring of 2024.
“The Salk brings in about $100 million in philanthropy annually,” said Joyce. “In the current fiscal year, we’re going to be well above that number.”
The Salk’s decision to put him in charge has been met with positive reviews from colleagues and competitors, including David Brenner, CEO of the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in La Jolla.
“He is an accomplished scientist who has worked at multiple institutions and really understands how to collaborate in a way that advances human health,” Brenner said. “He is a next generation leader. This is good for San Diego.”