Thought Leaders

Andrew Ellington

Dr. Andrew Ellington received his B.S. in Biochemistry from Michigan State University in 1981, and his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Harvard in 1988. As a graduate student he worked with Dr. Steve Benner on the evolutionary optimization of dehydrogenase isozymes. His post-doctoral work was with Dr. Jack Szostak at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he developed methods for the in vitro selection of functional nucleic acids and coined the term ‘aptamer.’  Dr. Ellington began his academic career as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Indiana University in 1992, and continued to develop selection methods. He received the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator, Cottrell, and Pew Scholar awards. In 1998 he moved to the University of Texas at Austin and is now the Fraser Professor of Biochemistry. Dr. Ellington’s lab now works on the development of functional nucleic acids for practical applications, including aptamer biosensors, allosteric ribozyme logic gates (aptazymes), and internalizing nucleic acids that can deliver siRNAs to cells. The next leap forward will hopefully be to develop synthetic genetic circuits that can perform amorphous computations. Dr. Ellington was a member of the Defense Science Study Group, and continues to be active in the DIA advisory group Biochem2020.(1)

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Larry Gold

Larry Gold and Craig Tuerk with their SELEX technology invented an important screening process used in biochemistry to find unique oligonucleotides capable of binding to specific proteins that cause disease.  Gold and Tuerk developed a process which they would name Systematic Evolution of Ligands by Exponential Enrichment. SELEX (Patent EP0533838, date of publication and mention of the grant of the patent December 3, 1997).(2) Larry Gold is the founder, chairman of the board, and CEO of SomaLogic. Prior to SomaLogic, he founded NeXagen, Inc., which later became NeXstar Pharmaceuticals, Inc. In 1999, NeXstar merged with Gilead Sciences, Inc. to form a global organization committed to the discovery, development and commercialization of novel products that treat infectious diseases. During nearly 10 years at NeXstar, Larry held numerous executive positions including chairman of the board, executive vice president of R&D, and chief science officer. Before forming NeXagen, he also co-founded and served as co-director of research at Synergen, Inc., a pioneering biotechnology company later acquired by Amgen, Inc. Since 1970, Larry has been a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. While at the university, he served as the chairman of the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department from 1988 to 1992. During his prestigious career, Larry has received many citations including the CU Distinguished Lectureship Award, the National Institutes of Health Merit Award, the Career Development Award, and the Chiron Prize for Biotechnology. In addition, he has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1993 and the National Academy of Sciences since 1995. Larry also serves on the board of directors of BioForce Nanosystems, BT Pharma, CompleGen, MicroPhage, and the scientific advisory board of Archemix.(3)

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 Kary Mullis

Kary Banks Mullis, Nobel Prize winning chemist, was born on December 28, 1944, in Lenoir, North Carolina.  He received a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1966. He earned a Ph.D. degree in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1972 and lectured in biochemistry there until 1973. That year, Kary became a postdoctoral fellow in pediatric cardiology at the University of Kansas Medical School, with emphasis in the areas of angiotensin and pulmonary vascular physiology. In 1977 he began two years of postdoctoral work in pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of California, San Francisco.  Kary joined the Cetus Corporation in Emeryville, California, as a DNA chemist in 1979. During his seven years there, he conducted research on oligonucleotide synthesis and invented the polymerase chain reaction.

In 1986, he was named director of molecular biology at Xytronyx, Inc. in San Diego, where his work was concentrated in DNA technology and photochemistry. In 1987 began consulting on nucleic acid chemistry for more than a dozen corporations, including Angenics, Cytometrics, Eastman Kodak, Abbott Labs, Milligen / Biosearch, and Specialty Laboratories.

Kary received a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993, for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The process, which Kary conceptualized in 1983, is hailed as one of the monumental scientific techniques of the twentieth century.  A method of amplifying DNA, PCR multiplies a single, microscopic strand of the genetic material billions of times within hours. The process has multiple applications in medicine, genetics, biotechnology, and forensics. PCR, because of its ability to extract DNA from fossils, is in reality the basis of a new scientific discipline, paleobiology. Kary was awarded the Japan Prize in 1993 for the PCR invention. It is one of international science’s most prestigious awards.

Kary has authored several major patents. His patented inventions include the PCR technology and UV-sensitive plastic that changes color in response to light. His most recent patent application covers a revolutionary approach to instantly mobilize the immune system to neutralize invading pathogens and toxins, leading to the formation of his latest venture, Altermune LLC. Altermune is currently focusing on Influenza A and drug resistant Staphylococcus aureus.(4)

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Ronald Breaker

Ronald Breaker believes in nature’s inherent elegance. For nearly 20 years, scientists knew that, in the laboratory, certain single-stranded nucleic acids fold into three-dimensional structures called aptamers, which bind to proteins, amino acids, vitamins, metal ions, and other small molecules. They do this so tightly and with such specificity that it seemed surprising evolution had not taken advantage of them. But no one had found aptamers that bind small molecules in an organism, and many believed they did not exist.

Convinced that such a simple means of recognizing specific molecules would not go unnoticed by nature, Breaker resolved to find natural aptamers that function in modern organisms; so far, he has found dozens of regulatory switches that involve aptamers joined to bacterial genes. These domains of messenger RNAs (“riboswitches”) bind to metabolites and control genes responsible for biosynthesis of essential compounds. Riboswitches could represent new drug targets and might be used to control the activity of genes inserted into cells as gene therapies.

Breaker is exploring the structural and functional capabilities of these naturally catalytic RNA and DNA molecules. His research led to creation of the first examples of catalytic DNA—called deoxyribozymes. He also developed a method of “in vitro evolution” to create catalytic RNA molecules that do not exist in nature. He may even be able to resurrect RNA enzymes and other functional RNAs that have been extinct for billions of years.

Beyond aiding understanding of the RNA machinery of cells and RNA’s role in evolution, Breaker’s research contributes to the capability of creating engineered organisms, biocatalysts, and biosensors for industrial applications and molecular computing systems that could be far more compact than today’s silicon computers.(5)

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