June 2011

Roy Vagelos: forging links between academia and industry

Suzanne Pfeffer, Michael Brown, Joseph Goldstein and Roy Vagelos at the 2011 Earl and Thressa Stadtman Distinguished Scientist Award lecture.

This month I write to honor Dr. Roy Vagelos, a long-term member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology who helped us create theASBMB Earl and Thressa Stadtman Distinguished Scientist Award after Earl Stadtman died in 2008. The Stadtman Award recognizes a scientist for his or her outstanding achievement in basic research in the fields encompassed by ASBMB; it will be given annually and alternate between an established scientist and a young investigator with less than 10 years of experience as an independent investigator. Earl Stadtman helped elucidate the role of coenzyme A in fatty acid metabolism and made major contributions to our understanding of reversible, interconvertible enzyme cascades in regulating glutamine synthetase (1). Thressa Stadtman made important contributions to vitamin B12 biochemistry, and her work included the first demonstration that selenium plays an essential role in the catalytic activity of many selenoenzymes (2, 3). Drs.Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School were the first recipients of this award this year, which was especially gratifying for Mike Brown as a former Stadtman lab postdoctoral fellow.

Roy Vagelos presented the award to Brown and Goldstein at the 2011 annual meeting. Vagelos also was a Stadtman lab postdoctoral fellow. He earned his Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania and his M.D. from Columbia University. After an internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, he joined the National Institutes of Health and served as senior surgeon and then section head of comparative biochemistry. While at the NIH, Vagelos began his own pioneering research on lipid metabolism, which led to the discovery of acyl-carrier protein (4). Later, he became chairman of the department of biological chemistry at Washington University School of Medicine. In 1975, Vagelos joined Merck, first as president of Merck’s research division and then as senior vice-president; he served as president and chief executive officer of the company from 1985, and chairman from 1986, until his retirement in 1994. Not only was he the lead scientist in Merck’s development of the statin drugs Lovastatin and Zocor, he also was the key advocate in Merck’s decision to make Ivermectin freely available to the people of Africa and Central America for the treatment of river blindness, a widespread, chronic and debilitating disease caused by the parasite Onchocerca volvulus and disseminated by black flies.

Roy’s son Randall Vagelos, an outstanding cardiologist at the Stanford School of Medicine, adds, “My father treats the development and evaluation of every new and potential drug as critically as if he were assessing and treating a patient. This strong association is what drives him to push to deliver new therapies to patients and can be seen in the novel approach he took in his leadership style at Merck and afterward in his career. He is patient-centered.”

Having worked in academia and the pharmaceutical industry for more than 40 years, Vagelos has long been an advocate of the importance of interactions between these two arenas (5). He points out that these interactions are essential for the discovery and development of new drugs and for providing scientific and educational information about new products to physicians for use in patient care. Drug discovery usually takes place in industry, but it is absolutely dependent upon knowledge that is generated at universities. Once a drug is developed (usually in industry), testing often involves close collaboration with university physicians to design and analyze data from clinical trials and to help formulate a strategy for U.S. Food and Drug Administration review of the findings.

During our annual meeting in March, Vagelos took time to talk with ASBMB leadership about the continued importance of links between academia and industry. He noted that some companies now are turning to academic institutions to help discover new targets and new drugs. According to Vagelos, Pfizer is cutting back intramural research and is providing academic researchers with access to chemical libraries and antibodies and preliminary toxicology results in exchange for rights to develop future discoveries. Merck, on the other hand, is one of the large pharmaceutical companies that is not cutting back basic research activities.

Vagelos noted that the medicinal chemistry needed to develop effective drugs is not an academic activity; rather, it is an area in which industry excels. He feels strongly that translational research is best tackled in partnership with industry – and that it would be foolish not to take advantage of the vast expertise and resources that industry can provide. Vagelos added, “Universities are best at obtaining new knowledge. Industry needs that new knowledge, and if the U.S. National Institutes of Health wants to best support new drug discovery, pursuit of fundamental knowledge should be the focus of its limited resources.”

Vagelos, and recently Johnston et al. (6), summarized a number of cases where a drug could not have been developed without productive interactions between academia and industry. For example, Imatinib (Gleevec) is used as a first-line therapy for patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia. Nicholas Lydon, an industrial scientist, partnered with an academic investigator, Brian Druker, to identify novel tyrosine kinase inhibitors for the Bcr-Abl kinase implicated in this disease. As noted by Johnston et al. (6), “Academia is not charged or organized to bring therapies to the public … With rare exception, the public benefits of discoveries made in academia are realized only when they have been translated into use through industry. Unlike academia, industry is designed to effectively and efficiently produce and distribute therapies. Thus, academia and industry each have an essential role in improving health through biomedical discoveries.”

The reputation of collaborations between industry and academia has suffered in recent years from undisclosed financial ties and perceived conflicts of interest (5, 6). These must be dealt with explicitly and with maximal transparency to ensure the reliability of research findings, proper design of clinical trials and avoidance of corruption of the prescribing behavior of physicians. But all of us must work together to promote strategic research interactions between academia and industry.

As the NIH prepares to establish a National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, ASBMB urges NIH to leverage what industry brings to the table rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. Congress and the public are justified in wanting cures, but they will not be there if we stop supporting basic research. Drug company breakthroughs are few and far between, and when existing drugs stop working, it is only the basic science that can help industry determine what tack to take next. There was no Gleevec before we knew about tyrosine kinases. And given that we have no idea what a large proportion of human genes do, there is plenty of fundamental research that still needs to be done.

Thank you, Roy Vagelos, for your outstanding contributions, your advocacy for basic research, and your continued support of ASBMB.


1. Kresge, N., Simoni, R.D., and Hill, R.L. (2005) Fatty acid synthesis and glutamine synthetase: the work of Earl Stadtman. J. Biol. Chem. 280, e23.
2. Park, B. S. Thressa Stadtman: how does vitamin B12 function?
3. Park, B. S. Thressa Stadtman: pioneer of selenium biochemistry
4. Kresge, N., Simoni, R.D., and Hill, R.L. (2005) The role of the acyl carrier protein in fatty acid synthesis: the work of P. Roy Vagelos. J. Biol. Chem. 280, e32.
5. Vagelos, P. R. (2007) Innovation and industry-academia interactions: where conflicts arise and measures to avoid them. Cleve. Clin. J. Med. 74, Suppl. 2:S12 – 3.
6. Johnston, S. C., Hauser, S. L., and Desmond-Hellmann, S. (2011) Enhancing ties between academia and industry to improve health. Nat. Med. 17, 434 – 436.

Suzanne PfefferASBMB President Suzanne Pfeffer (pfeffer@stanford.edu) is a professor of biochemistry at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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