Renaissance man brings diverse talents to ASU bio-agriculture

May 31, 2007

By hammersmith

More than 20 years ago, Guy Cardineau began his career as a research scientist at Sungene Technologies, a high-tech company in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Since then, he has helped develop the world’s first plant-made pharmaceutical, weathered multiple business mergers, worked to create insect-resistant corn, and served as a legal expert in the area of bio-agriculture.

Today, his expertise in both science and policy has earned him a joint appointment at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute and the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. His prominence nationally is exemplified by a recent appointment to a U.S. Department of Agriculture committee created to advise Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns on bio-ag issues.

“I’m a scientist by training,” says Cardineau. “My interaction with law was sort of an avocation.”

In fact, Cardineau’s first foray into policies and procedures was nearly happenstance.

Early in his career at Sungene, the firm was acquired by another, larger company, called Agrigenetics. In the midst of restructuring, says Cardineau, many employees sought jobs elsewhere, leaving behind their patent applications.

“When I got there, they had close to a hundred patents filed,” he explains. “But everybody who was involved with them was gone. So, as head of the molecular biology group, I ended up working with both internal and external patent attorneys and got very involved with the area of intellectual property.”

After having learned the ropes in patent law, Cardineau became a valuable asset in the science-business world. When Agrigenetics was acquired by Mycogen four years later, he served as director of molecular biology before being tapped to serve as a legal advisor for the company’s patent litigation efforts.

“Because I knew the IP and the science, the president of the company drafted me into the legal group,” explains Cardineau.

Though this decision required him to temporarily sideline his research, Cardineau’s willingness to shift gears was hardly unprecedented.

“After I graduated college with a degree in American civilization, I moved to Boston to play in a band, and I decided that wasn’t going to work out in the long run,” says Cardineau. “So I got a job selling photocopiers in Boston, and that wasn’t really a career path either.”

In the end, Cardineau chose one of the least-likely career moves for a liberal arts major—veterinary school.

While taking prerequisites, he took a microbiology course and found himself “intrigued with bacteria as little factories that make things,” but applied to veterinary school at Auburn University nonetheless.

Much to his chagrin, he was rejected.

“I had a big beard and hair down to here,” Cardineau explains, pointing to his shoulder, as partial explanation for his rejection, “And I was a Yankee.”

Then, while reading an article in Time magazine on microbiology researcher Roy Curtiss, Cardineau found his calling.

“I saw of picture of Roy with a big beard and long hair and thought, ‘Holy smokes, I could work for that guy,'” he recalls.

“So I drove up to Birmingham, walked in off the street and went into the molecular and cellular biology graduate office and said, ‘I’d like to go to graduate school.'”

After completing a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Auburn and receiving admittance to University of Alabama-Birmingham, Cardineau spent the next six years studying molecular and cellular biology with Curtiss as his primary mentor.

“He’s my mentor, also known as my tormentor,” jokes Cardineau, who says that even as a graduate student, Curtiss pushed him to defend his ideas and work.

“He always challenged you, and in front of everybody too. It was a little intimidating, but it sharpened your skills, and you developed the ability to respond. And that’s part of what you have to do as a researcher—you have to be able to present your research and answer questions, and not everybody agrees with you. You have to be able to defend your work.”

This skill came in handy down the road as Cardineau and Curtiss worked on—and eventually patented—the world’s first plant-made vaccine.

Today the two are colleagues in the Biodesign Institute at ASU, where both of them are still involved in vaccinology research.

Cardineau is now working on genetically altering tomatoes to produce antigens that evoke immune responses in the human body. By crushing the dried tomato plant material into a pill, Cardineau says, they may be able to create safe, cost-effective vaccines that could reach more of the developing world.

“The whole focus, really, is to try and develop vaccine production and delivery systems that are translatable to those places in the world where it’s more difficult to get vaccines,” he explains.

According to Cardineau, however, plant-made vaccines have yet to receive public acceptance. “There have been four human trials in the United States using potatoes and corn, and they’ve all been successful as far as subjects developing immune responses, but we still have trouble getting people to take us seriously,” he explains.

“The concept of an inert molecule produced in plant material and delivered orally to develop an immune response is against the central dogma of immunology that says you have to have a live organism to do this. But it seems to work.”

The topic of science versus public opinion is one that Cardineau also grapples with as a panel member on the USDA Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture.

The United States Secretary of Agriculture established the panel in 2006 to receive input on how to regulate conventional, organic, and genetically modified crops.

“There are pros and cons on both sides of all of the issues, and I think we have to develop policy that’s going to address the needs of agriculture in the United States and the needs of the consumer,” says Cardineau. “I’m a scientist, so I think we need a science-based approach to this. There’s always a conflict between science and emotion.”

“I would like to think that as people learn more about the potential benefits of genetically modifying foods, they’ll become more accepting of this technology.”

In the meantime, Cardineau says he is enjoying his work as a science and law professor, and his challenges as a researcher.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am to teach. I like having a dialogue with the students, and I like seeing the light bulb go on,” he explains. “But I guess the biggest ultimate success for me would be seeing this whole plant-made pharmaceutical thing work and take off. I’d like to see that happen.”