Top scientists return to Arizona for leadership posts at Biodesign Institute

March 11, 2009

By hammersmith

When Phoenix natives Alan Nelson and Joshua LaBaer graduated from high school, they followed a path typical in the 1960s and 1970s for many bright young scholars in Arizona: they left for California.

Now they’re back.

Last week, Dr. Nelson, a prominent bioengineer and expert in technology commercialization, was officially welcomed as the new director of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University. In June, he will be joined at Biodesign by Dr. LaBaer, a trailblazer in the field of proteomics, who will head a major new personalized-diagnostics laboratory. Both were drawn home—Dr. Nelson from a biotechnology firm in Washington state, Dr. LaBaer from Harvard Medical School—by the ground-floor opportunities that Arizona and Biodesign offer.

“Universities need to make the transition from being think tanks to being producers,” Dr. Nelson said in the Arizona Republic. “Biodesign is going to be an engine for company startups.”

“We are especially excited to be doing this in Arizona where there is a strong collaborative atmosphere and a palpable excitement about this new direction for medicine,” Dr. LaBaer said. “Arizona is relatively new in this particular biomedical space,” he added in the Republic, “and people have not really built these institutional silos here.”

Alan Nelson

Dr. Nelson arrives at ASU after nearly 30 years of conducting academic and industry research in areas related to biomedical imaging. He has held professorships at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the University of Washington, and has published more than 100 scientific papers. His work has yielded 45 patents, and he has founded two companies, most recently VisionGate Inc., a firm headquartered near Seattle that he is now working to sell.

The first firm Dr. Nelson founded, NeoPath Inc., developed a test for detecting cervical cancer. That valuable advance enabled Dr. Nelson to take NeoPath public in 1996; he continued to guide the company until its acquisition by Becton-Dickinson in 2000, at which point he set to work launching VisionGate. The new company has followed a somewhat similar path, focusing on development of a test for early diagnosis of lung cancer. The lung-cancer diagnostic relies on a new technology platform for rendering three-dimensional images of cell structures.

“Alan brings exactly the right drive, purpose, and vision to help Biodesign succeed in these challenging times,” said George Poste, Biodesign’s founding director, in his introduction of Dr. Nelson to the ASU community. “He has the mix of intellect, academic experience, and industrial experience to move discoveries into use.”

In his remarks after Dr. Poste’s introduction, Dr. Nelson cited Biodesign’s emphasis on research originating from the study of biological functions and systems.

“This institution is unique—I’ve never seen it anywhere else,” Dr. Nelson said. “It’s about utilizing the forces of biology to solve major, major problems.”

Dr. Poste, who is stepping away from his leadership role at Biodesign to serve as chief scientist for ASU’s new Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative, said in the Phoenix Business Journal that he and Dr. Nelson will work closely with ASU’s technology-transfer program, Arizona Technology Enterprises, to improve and accelerate the way the university commercializes its researchers’ discoveries. One of their goals, Dr. Poste said in the Business Journal, is to fashion licensing agreements such that the university receives payback faster for its contributions to new services, products, and firms.

Those commercialization activities, together with Biodesign’s record of drawing federal funding, make the institute a crucial contributor to ASU’s success, said President Michael Crow.

“Last year, the Biodesign Institute generated more than $60 million in external funding and disclosed 50 new inventions,” Dr. Crow said. “These tight economic times make it more important than ever for us to preserve and diversify programs that have a proven ability to generate revenue and that ultimately will have a profound benefit to society.”

Joshua LaBaer

When Dr. LaBaer arrives at ASU this summer, he will immediately become one of Biodesign’s heavy hitters. He will serve as the first Virginia G. Piper Chair of Personalized Medicine, and will direct the Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics, one of the largest and most technologically complex laboratories at ASU. The lab will include space for a large staff—Dr. LaBaer’s current laboratory employs around 40 researchers and technicians—along with a cutting-edge robotic system for gene cloning, a critical piece of infrastructure for proteomics research.

That automated clone-production technology has been one of Dr. LaBaer’s key innovations at the Harvard Institute of Proteomics (HIP), which he founded at Harvard Medical School in 1999. In addition to providing copies of thousands of human genes for use in the research of Dr. LaBaer and his colleagues, HIP has distributed some 100,000 clones to researchers throughout the world. At ASU, Dr. LaBaer’s laboratory will operate on an equivalent scale.

“In the future, we will look back at our current list of illnesses as a gross oversimplification,” Dr. LaBaer said. “Already, in our modern era of molecular medicine, we are learning that what we have thought about as single diseases, like inflammatory bowel disease or breast cancer, actually include many different molecular variations, each with a different root cause, a different prognosis, and a response to specific therapies. Our lab hopes to help develop new diagnostic tools that pinpoint the specific molecular disease for each patient and directs physicians to the right therapeutic strategy for that individual.”

Dr. LaBaer’s recruitment and the new laboratory’s establishment were enabled to a significant extent by a major investment from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust announced nearly 15 months ago. In October 2007, the Piper Trust and the Flinn Foundation announced that they were jointly committing $45 million—Piper granting $35 million and Flinn $10 million—to launch the Partnership for Personalized Medicine, an initiative to develop personalized molecular diagnostics. The Partnership draws on the research expertise and capacity of three institutions: Biodesign, the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center of Seattle.

Dr. LaBaer’s laboratory will be the cornerstone of Biodesign’s contribution to the Partnership, and will play a major role in the Partnership’s discovery and validation of biomarkers—proteins that indicate the presence of disease or an individual’s responsiveness to a particular therapy. Along with Dr. LaBaer’s laboratory, the Partnership will rely on a new processing facility at TGen, as well as bioinformatics and high-performance computing expertise at TGen and ASU.

“The Piper trustees have made $35 million in investments in this area of research because we believe it is the future of medicine, and that Arizona is uniquely positioned to become a leader in this arena,” said Judy Mohraz, president and CEO of the Piper Trust. Dr. LaBaer’s appointment is a major boost to this effort.”

For more information:

New director plans to commercialize discoveries,” Arizona Republic, 03/05/2009

ASU Biodesign Institute names Alan Nelson director,” Phoenix Business Journal, 03/04/2009

Harvard director to lead ASU bioscience lab,” Arizona Republic, 02/18/2009

ASU media releases: Appointment of Dr. Nelson | Appointment of Dr. LaBaer