Harry Orf, Ph.D
Scripps Florida Vice President of Scientific Operations
Date: November 3, 2007
Thank you and good evening everyone, and welcome. You can hear me well enough with this? Okay. It’s a pleasure to have an opportunity to tell you a little bit about what this organization is and how we are tied into medicine and human health. It isn’t always obvious to the general public what the connections are between basic biomedical research and human health and I’m going to try to give you a little bit of a picture of that this evening.
So to begin we need to back up and make sure that we’re all on the same page by telling you a little bit about what the Scripps Research Institute is. The Scripps Research Institute is headquartered in La Jolla, California and it is the largest independent biomedical research institution in the United States.
I like to say that I can tell you everything you need to know about Scripps using the number three in 30 seconds. Ready? We have about 3000 employees, of those about 300 of them are professors, faculty members who conduct research and of those 300, three have Nobel Prizes. I don’t know what we’ll do if we hit a fourth Nobel Prize. It won’t work.
But Scripps is also an educational institution and it’s important for you to know that. If you look us up on the Web it is Scripps.edu, not Scripps.com. We are non-profit, we are education. We offer PhDs in Chemistry and in Biology and we are ranked top five in the national in both PhD schools. Now Scripps in California, and a large part of what we do here focuses on basic biomedical research. But Scripps Florida is not a clone of Scripps in California. In fact I like to say that what we do here scientifically is unique in an academic environment. Now I know unique is an overused word, it’s a misused word. It means one of a kind but I hope to be able to show you that the combination of basic biomedical research and cutting edge technology tools that we have brought here to Scripps Florida cannot be duplicated and isn’t duplicated anywhere else. And it allows us to do science and make basic biomedical discoveries at a pace that wasn’t even thinkable as recently as five or ten years ago.
Okay, so how are we organized here at Scripps? Well we’re organized according to what we like to say is three interdisciplinary themes. Now the first one is basic Biomedical Research. And if these themes were actually proportional that would be about two-thirds of what we do. Just like our parent in La Jolla, we do basic biomedical research and we do it in academic departments with professors and chairs, just like you’d see at a university or somewhere else. We have a Cancer Biology department, a Chemistry department, a Department of Infectious Diseases, a very interesting and new department of Metabolism and Aging, Molecular Therapeutics department and a Neuroscience department; all academic departments, all with chairs.
What makes Scripps Florida unique though are the latter two components. The first one we call Advanced Technologies and this is where we take cutting edge automation and robotics and computer science and we apply them to start helping solve the basic problems that are discovered by our basic biomedical researchers. So we’ve assembled a number of what we call core laboratories that will exploit the discoveries that are made in the basic research laboratories. And these core laboratories consist of genomics – this is the genes, the genetic material that makes us all up. So we have the ability to analyze all of us genetically. The genes make proteins, the proteins carry out the functions in our body and we have a proteomics core to analyze the proteins. The proteins work within cells. The cells are something else we need to look at as we’re examining biological action and so we have a cell-based screening core. The HTS stands for High Throughput Screening.
And I’ll show you a little movie of the robot that we have here. There are only five of them in the world. The newest and fastest one is right here and I’ll show you a little bit about what those capabilities can do.
We have an Informatics group. These are basically biologists who never go into the laboratory. They sit in front of a computer screen all day and they actually analyze the mountains of data that are generated by all of our automation.
And then we have a Discovery Biology group that actually takes those fundamental discoveries made in the basic Biomedical Research component and figures out how to develop new potential products and applications for them. So that’s our Advanced Technologies group.
The other component we call Drug Discovery, consists of a group of scientists that actually focus on taking a candidate and making it better as a potential therapeutic. So we have medicinal chemists, we have pharmacologists, we have toxicologists, we have scientists who work on drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics. To take something that could potentially be a good new therapeutic but before we go to tell it to a drug company or say, “You should put this in clinical trials,” we ourselves are able to test it to make sure that it’s safe, to make sure that it crosses the blood-brain barrier. To make sure that it does whatever it needs to do on the biological target before it goes into those clinical trials.
It’s a brand new approach to drug discovery called genomics based drug discovery and this is how we are set up to do it. Very few, if any, academic centers can come close to accessing this type of fire power once a basic discovery is made. And in fact, this is one of our chief recruitment tools for getting the distinguished investigators we have recruited because they realize they can take their research and their discoveries much further along the product development pipeline than they could in any other academic setting.
So together we call these latter two components the Translational Research Institute at Scripps Florida. We’ve named it that because we are in essence translating the basic discoveries that are made much further along toward an application or a specific product.
So where are we now? We’re sitting in a beautiful new campus. But just three years ago, or less than three years ago, this is what it looked like. And at that time we were still operating, we were on the edge of the FAU campus here in Avicola in these two buildings. They were built by the county for Scripps. Once we vacated them they were then handed over back to Florida Atlantic University. These two buildings housed our scientists for almost four years while the campus was being built. I’m sorry to say that these five trailers housed myself and my staff for almost those four years. Now these buildings were actually quite functional and they will serve – right now they’re the home for Max Planck and their temporary headquarters. And they serve very well to do scientific research. They are 74,000 square feet of space. But our campus when it was finally constructed, and this is a two year time lapse you’re going to see here, it consists of 350,000 square feet of research space. That is five times the size of the two temporary buildings that were built for us.
Now I mentioned Max Planck. Max Planck Society is the world’s largest scientific society. They have over 80 institutes, most of those in Germany and Europe. But the very first one in the Western Hemisphere is right here in Jupiter and it will be located right here where these construction trailers are shown, literally 50 feet across the street from one of our buildings. We are very pleased to say that we have been collaborating with Max Planck all the way along their journey to come to Palm Beach. The areas that they’re going to be working on, specifically bio imaging, are very complementary to – and we will work with them on joint grants, taking advantage of our High Throughput Screening capabilities to merge with the work that they’re doing in bio imaging.
So when we moved in about seven months ago – seven, eight months ago – we had these beautiful pristine laboratories, state-of-the-art in every way. We moved in and one week later they were just full of everything; boxes, chemicals, equipment and people. And that’s a good thing; a cluttered lab is usually a busy lab. And we are extremely busy here I can assure you. Right now our buildings are about 50% full. We have about 345 people as of this week and we are recruiting every day. Our plan is to steady stay at about twice that many.
Now to take you on a little bit of a virtual tour we’ll begin with building C. Our buildings are ingeniously named A, B and C. But for a mere seven figures you can replace one of those initials with your last name. Now building C, I’m starting with building C because if you remember the three interdisciplinary themes I put up initially, building C was initially thought to be the basic Biomedical Research building so it houses three of our academic departments. Whoops - let me back up here, I didn’t mean t do that. It houses three of our academic departments. There we go – Cancer Biology, Infectology and Neuroscience.
Now our Cancer Biology department is chaired by John Cleveland, a very distinguished cancer researcher who came to us from St. Jude Medical Center. He has assembled a terrific department. He has over seven principle investigators, faculty members, working with him. They work on all facets of cancer research and they have about 60 to 70 members of their department in total right now.
Our Infectology department which studies all kinds of infectious diseases is headed by Charles Weisman. He’s a National Academy member and a very distinguished scientist, founder many years ago of Biogen. Charles has assembled a terrific group of researchers as well. His focus in basic research is on Prion – Mad Cow Disease. He has a number of other researches that are making incredible strides in Hepatitis C usage.
Our Neuroscience department is actually the newest department that we have at Scripps. The chair just arrived literally one month ago. However we have researchers here who are already busy working on a variety of diseases that affect the brain and central nervous system including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and addiction. The interesting component of addiction – we have a young researcher here who’s made a pretty amazing discovery. He started working on the addiction of narcotics and then went to the addiction of smoking. And then found a common mechanism in the brain, that is a feedback mechanism, that feeds addiction. And found out that that was a general feedback mechanism and it applies to all forms of addiction, including obesity.
Moving on to the building that we’re in, building B, this building would have traditionally been called the Advanced Technologies building because we have all of those core laboratories in it that I told you about. But we’ve really mixed things up a little bit here. We have an academic department here. And in the middle building we have a lot of central services. We have researchers working in all three buildings. We want them to interact so we put all the central services we could in the middle buildings to facilitate that type of interaction. Most of you came in this way to our main building and into the entrance into the Dreyfuss atrium. Alex Dreyfuss is one of our trustees and one of our major donors.
On the first floor of this building we have our three primary core laboratories – the genomics laboratory, again analyzing all the genetic materials and make up – we can do a very quick genetic analysis of literally any organism. The genes make the proteins and we have a terrific proteomics group headed up by Jennifer Busby who you see there, one of the leading researchers of proteomics. A lot of the physicians are used to expensive equipment but when I give this talk to a lay audience I point out the little box over here that’s an MSMS who’s price tag is just under $1 million. That usually impresses the high school kids when we walk them through.
The Cell-based screening core also is housed right next to the genomics and proteomics core since all the proteins function in cells. And if we’re going to understand the genetic bases of disease with proteomic bases of disease we need to know and be able to see what they’re doing inside the cell. So we have again a tremendous amount of automation and robotics to help us do that.
We also have an academic department here chaired by Roy Smith who came to us from Baylor. Roy heads up the Department of Metabolism and Aging. And his research is really interesting in that in animal models he’s been able to show that by changing the hormonal balance in older mice he can actually not only arrest their aging but actually have some of those processes revert. So as soon as he can do that in humans I’m volunteering.
Now the central amenities that we have here in the main building, the first one I’d like to show you is the library. Interesting, our library is no bigger in total than this room. We have only 17 journals in print and we have about 200 reference books. Everything else is accessed electronically, as are most of the medical journals today. We have access to over 3000 scientific journals. We do literature searches; we have a librarian that can do them, that can show our graduate students how to use them and it’s all done in the confines of a space no bigger than what we’re sitting in right now.
Our cafeteria, you all saw that first hand this evening; a very nice way to get people from the other buildings to come over for breakfast or lunch and meet and sit and look out onto the fountain when they have a few minutes from their research work.
We also have two state-of-the-art classrooms. And when I say state-of-the-art classrooms, these are true distance learning classrooms. Our headquarters are in La Jolla, California. We have graduate students on both coasts. Our faculty members teach a course in this classroom and they teach it simultaneously to students here in Florida and in California. There are five cameras in our classrooms. There are similar cameras here. When the professor speaks the students in California not only can see the professor, they can see the board, they can see any projections that he or she is putting up, and on those two side boards that you see there – so called smart boards – whatever the faculty member writes on that board here in Florida appears simultaneously in California. They can ask questions back and forth in real time. So this is a true distance learning environment. And as a bi-coastal institution that was one of our priorities, to make sure that we were at the cutting edge of distance learning teaching. When you combine our classrooms together with this educational pavilion here the entire thing is called the Fink Educational Pavilion; again named after, in this case, the husband of one of our trustees and a donor.
Moving on to our final building, building A. And again, if we were – in the old nomenclature this would have been the Drug Discovery building, although there’s a lot more in it nowadays than just the chemistry component. This building is the heaviest in chemical research. We have all of our chemical fume hoods here for the most part and we’ve assembled both our medicinal chemists and our synthetic chemists, and even some energy chemists here in this building. We also have a molecular therapeutics department which is an academic department with faculty members doing basic research.
Our Translational Research Institute, that group that I told you about that’s translating those discoveries, they have a lot of their working groups right here in this building as well. Here you enter this building through the Frost lobby; again another trustee and donor of Scripps. Now, the peaster resistance of our automation is the calyptus [ph] robotic system. And you take a look at it there, you take a look at it here. It doesn’t look like anything more than the robotic arm that is used to put the door handle on your automobile. And in fact, it isn’t anything different than that, just with some additional technology added.
Now what this robot can do is it analyzes small plates. Now if you look at my hand here, I have a space that’s about three inches by five inches. If you can imagine a plastic plate three inches by five inches with 1536 micro test tubes inscribed in that plate, 1536 micro test tubes, each one can hold a micro dot of material. And this robot can analyze 40 of those 1536 plates in one hour. And the result of that is that we can assay on a biological target, let’s say the insulin receptor, we can assay a million compounds against that biological target in one day. It’s very hard for someone who hasn’t seen something on that small of scale operate to really appreciate the advance in screening and in technology and in research that this system has provided. There are a total of five of these systems operational in the world right now. Three of them are in big pharmaceutical firms. One of them is at NIH in Washington, DC. And the newest and fastest one is about 100 yards away from where we are right now.
We also, as I’ve said, have an academic department housed here. This is the Department of Molecular Therapeutics. And they are the group of basic scientists who actually have a pre-clinical hat on. They take the basic discoveries from all the other departments and they figure out how to take those discoveries along toward therapeutic development; how to make a product out of it, how to make a new platform technology out of it that might serve as a basis for a new company.
Our chemists are housed in this building as I’ve said. What do the chemists do, what do medicinal chemists do? Well once we find a compound that is a potentially good therapy, maybe a brand new potential drug. But maybe there’s a problem with it. Maybe it’s a little bit toxic or maybe it doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier. These chemists will tweak that structure. They’ll take that structure and they’ll manipulate it in the laboratories, the chemical laboratories, and they’ll change it to try to get it to stay on the target longer or to be safer to people or to cross the blood-brain barrier. That’s what our chemists do. They basically are the end note to the basic discovery channel that’s developing those new potential therapies.
Now we also have a group of energy chemists here. What does that have to do with medicine? Well it doesn’t have anything to do with medicine, does it? But we have a group working on alternative fuels, on greener technologies. And the reason they’re here is they’re using the same high-tech automation and robotics tools that our medicinal groups use.
Education; as I said we’re Scripps.edu we’re not Scripps.com. Our graduate program is renowned. Right now in Florida we have over 20 – 24, 25 graduate students who are working on their PhDs here with our faculty members. The program is only three years old and we’ve already recruited over 20 students. Once students get their PhD they go on for a couple of years and do post-doctoral research. Scripps is a leading post-doctoral research educator. We have almost 100 post-docs working here at Scripps right now. We also participate in K-12 educational and community outreach. And that’s an important component because we need to help educate future generations of scientists if they’re going to do work at Scripps.
So our educational program has been developed here very rapidly and is quite robust for only having been a few years old. It’s supported by the Keenan Charitable Trust. You may recognize the Keenan family, the owners of the Breakers. Is that enough said there? Our outreach highlight programs here; the Keenan Summer Research Intern program. This is where we bring in high school students and teachers to work for seven weeks side by side with our researchers on basic biomedical problems. You can see we started out in 2005 with seven, and this year we’re up to 17 interns in the summer. We also have another program for high school students which we call Science Saturdays. This is where they come in and spend four hours with us. They isolate their own DNA and they solve a CSI-like crime scene. Not so dramatic, it’s ‘who stole the doughnut’. We don’t do the TV drama, but it actually takes them four hours to figure out who did it. But they use all the same modern tools that are used in the real world to do that.
We’ve also expanded this year through another grant that the Keenan program has given us for specifically to teach teachers how to teach science. Too often we have found that high school science teachers and middle school science teachers are literally one or two lessons ahead of their students when it comes to what’s in the science textbook. They’re not very comfortable with teaching science so we have a summer institute that brings them here for a couple of weeks and shows them the modern techniques and gets them comfortable with the fact that they’re actually teaching real science.
We also extend our outreach programs down to the middle school level where instead of focusing on bio science, we teach them the excitement there is in fundamental science. We have lessons that link the basic sciences of chemistry, physics, biology and math. Why do we do that? Well if you compare the United States in terms of their student population in math and science, if you compare them to the rest of the civilized world in the 4th grade, our students rank in the top 10%. If you do that same comparison by the time they’re in the 8th grade they’re in the bottom 30%.
And if you test our students on average by the time they graduate high school in math and science compared to the rest of the civilized countries in this world, they’re in the bottom 10%. Why? In our middle schools where we begin to go into science in depth we give students a wonderful exposure to a variety of different sciences; earth science, astronomy, marine science. But what we don’t do, and what the countries who do well in science education do, is they give their students a very fundamental grounding in the basic sciences of chemistry and biology and physics and math. Once they understand what those basic sciences are and how they fit together then they can build on that understanding to understand that astronomy isn’t just looking at stars and earth science isn’t just looking at rock. And that’s what our introduction to science lessons do.
We have partnered with the South Florida Science Museum. We have taught their staff how to offer these lessons and they offer Science Saturdays and outreach lessons as well. And we’ve partnered with the Palm Beach County school district where we get our candidate schools each year to offer these courses. This is a shot of our most recent summer interns. There are more than 17 of them there because three of these kids who went on to college actually came back to the summer for us and worked in research laboratories where they had worked in past years. So we’re already beginning to see the fruits of our labor here in educating the high school kids. They’re coming back, they’re majoring in science in college, and they’re actually working for us in the laboratories in the summer.
Here’s a shot of one of our first Science Saturday classes. This is my favorite group of kids. They came and joined us the morning of their junior prom. They spent four hours with us, still got home in time to get their nails done and go to the prom. This is one of our more recent Science Saturday classes from Glades High School. What we try to do with our Science Saturday classes are focus on Title One schools, schools that are historically and populations that are historically underrepresented in the sciences. This is one of our middle school lessons. Here we are using colored marshmallows and spaghetti sticks to teach students what the world is made of and how it’s put together.
So to summarize kind of where we are right now as of this week we have 345 staff members and over 30 faculty and science directors on board. Our intent is to double those numbers within the next two-and-a-half years. We have been named one of only four national screening centers. This was an $80 million grant given to Scripps last year by NIH, the largest grant in Scripps history. And it is mostly a result of that robot that I told you about, enabling us to do this fabulous screening. We also received – it says here one of the first drug development grants. I can tell you officially, we got the first one. This was a grant – this is a brand new program that NIH is offering to actually give grants to investigators to develop a single drug candidate that has high promise. And Dr. LaGrasso at Scripps in the Discovery Biology department received an $8 million grant to develop a Parkinson’s drug. We have over 30 therapeutic candidates right now that are in that drug development pipeline, somewhere between the robot and the chemists.
We also collaborate with other academic institutions around the state. The state of Florida gave Scripps a lot of money and we realize that. And part of our mandate is to give back to the state by inviting researchers from all other research universities around the state to come here, learn about our technology and apply it to their research. And right now we have over 30 peer-to-peer collaborations going on, at least one with every Florida research university in the state. So far in terms of biotech and pharmaceutical companies, we’ve had two start-up companies created from the work that has gone on here at Scripps.
And we have collaborative research projects going on with all the major pharmaceutical companies; Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Merck Lilly. I told you about our graduate program; over 20 graduate students we’ve awarded four PhDs and we’re nationally ranked in both biology and chemistry. And finally our outreach program, we’ve reached directly over 2000 Palm Beach County students and we have had over 60 summer interns here since we began the program in 2005.
So if you summarize this, if you kind of roll it all up, what you have is Scripps Florida founded on these three interdisciplinary tenets; collaborating with Florida universities and spreading the technology wealth if you will, participating in educational outreach to the local and regional community, collaborating with pharmaceutical companies and participating in bio technology start-ups; ultimately funded by federal grants, private foundations, venture capital and yes philanthropy which is an important component of our research. And ultimately working with the Florida population to help educate them which is why we’re happy to address crowds like yours and other crowds of the general public because we need to work together to help the public understand the basic ties that exist between biomedical research and human health.
If we can help them gain that understanding we think that the public will come to embrace basic biomedical research as the engine of biomedical discovery. We believe they will understand the risks associated with it which we can demonstrate are small and we believe they’ll embrace the promise of it which we think is pretty terrific. Thank You.