December 2009

Jupiter Rising

Scripps Leads Biotech Effort in South Florida


Amongst the numerous scientists, politicos and other guests present at the Burnham’s Institute’s opening ceremonies in Orlando, there was someone quite familiar with a gala such as this. In fact, just a few months before, Harry Orf was presiding over a similar dedication just down the expressway in the town of Jupiter, when the Scripps Research Institute cut the ribbon on its own brand new three-building, 350,000-square-foot Florida campus. 

Scripps Florida

Scripps Florida’s central building, which houses administrative offices, a cafeteria and an amphitheater in addition to labs and classrooms, is crowned by a symbolic interpretation of the DNA double helix.

That ceremony in February was the culmination of a marriage of opportunity that started in 2003. Richard A. Lerner, CEO of Scripps, was looking to expand the institute’s footprint, preferably on the East Coast, while then-Gov. Jeb Bush was searching for a scientific powerhouse to take the lead in Florida’s ambitious and unpredictable biotechnology development plan.

The pair met, and, although Lerner initially had thought about established locales like North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, the idea of being a biotech trailblazer fit well with Scripps’ pioneering nature, and Lerner agreed to take the plunge.

Being the first would require strong leadership, and, in looking at his credentials, one can see why Scripps tapped Orf as operations director for its new campus. He spent more than 30 years at Harvard University and had witnessed the birth and growth of biotech in Boston; in fact, he even helped nudge it along, as he was part of a consulting company that had helped develop more than 65 startup biotech companies. Orf also brought tremendous administrative, recruiting and laboratory design experience to the fold, having served as director of the molecular biology laboratories at Massachusetts General Hospital for 20 years.

However, at the time, in 2003, Orf was serving in a different capacity: as a nuclear medicine officer in the Army Reserve who had just been called up— on two days notice— to Iraq.

“And wouldn’t you know it, I started getting job offers,” he says. First, a recruiter for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute inquired whether he would be interested in being a part of its Janelia Farm project, but they needed him to start by January 2004 at the latest, and, as he notes, “I couldn’t just call up the Army and tell them, ‘Hey, I have to go now.’ So, I had to pass on the opportunity.”

A few weeks later, he received an e-mail from the same recruiter telling him about the Scripps Florida project, and by then he had received notice that he would be back stateside in February, so he decided to find out more. “And God bless the U.S. government, because the defense operators arranged a call from Iraq to the San Diego Naval Yard and got me connected with Dr. Lerner. We spoke at length, and, since I was planning on taking my wife and son to Disney World when I got back, he told me, ‘While you’re down there, drive over to Palm Beach, and we’ll talk some more.’”

“It was kind of funny,” Orf continues. “Before that meeting, I thought about Florida more as a place to retire than a place to start a new career, but, after hearing about how Scripps’ enterprise could lead this major scientific vision that Florida had, I readily signed on.”

Of course, then came the challenge of getting others to sign too, which could be tricky, especially in the early days when Scripps Florida was more promise than substance.

Harry Orf
Harry Orf, Scripps Florida’s operations director, surveys the scene outside his office. Despite some initial delays, the Scripps campus in Jupiter is now operational.

Patrick R. Griffin, chairman of the molecular therapeutics department and one of three faculty members who arrived in Florida before Orf, recalls those early times. During his recruitment visit, the facilities tour consisted of driving by an orchard that had a big fence with a sign that said “Do Not Enter,” and he was told that his initial research space would be half a bench in a laboratory at Florida Atlantic University’s Boca Raton campus. 

“I basically had to take it on faith that everything— the buildings, funding, recruiting— would work out,” he says. Still, Griffin, then running a small biotech company called ExSAR Corp., was looking for something different, and Scripps’ pre-existing reputation eventually swayed him.

And while there were a few other bumps in the road, like an environmental lawsuit over the initial proposed site that delayed building construction, the recruiting progress has been strong, and Scripps has more than 30 out of 60 investigator positions filled and more than 350 staff overall. As Orf says jokingly, “It feels like we bring in someone new every week.”



Familiar Neighbors

While both Burnham and Scripps are focused inward, and are making sure their new centers can be the best they can be, neither is blind to the fact that the other also has set up shop in Florida. So, will this development add a new layer to a spirited biomedical rivalry? The directors of the institutes share their thoughts:

Burnham at Lake Nona scientific director Daniel P. Kelly:
Well, I think in many ways Scripps and Burnham are both beginning to establish their own ecosystems here in Florida. Both institutes have pushed for a strong translational element. Scripps has focused on a fundamental drug-discovery theme. While Burnham has drug-discovery platforms, it is moving toward a translational medicine theme by partnering with regional health systems. This could set the stage for highly productive collaborative interactions between the institutes. 

Scripps Florida operations director Harry Orf:
Will Scripps researchers be competing for grants and awards with people at Burnham, Torrey Pines and even nearby Max Planck? Sure. At the same time, though, having these other institutes here opens up tremendous opportunities; imagine how strong a joint Scripps-Max Planck grant application would be. And, in the big picture, having more Florida centers is a good thing; as they say, a rising tide raises all boats.

Much like the relationship between the two Burnham centers, Scripps Florida will share the same mission as its parental institute but also stake out its own identity. Of the six research departments at Scripps Florida— cancer biology, chemistry, infectology, metabolism and aging, molecular therapeutics and neuroscience— all but chemistry were established specifically for the Florida center, and the departmental chair and a majority of researchers for those five departments resides in Florida. Most departments, however, do have faculty members on each coast and, as a result, several major grants at Scripps are true bicoastal collaborations.

Despite such similarities, though, Orf stresses that Scripps Florida is not a clone. “While we still pursue basic biomedical research, the funding we received from the state allowed us to try something new, so we established cutting-edge technology cores, which we used to create a therapeutic discovery platform here at Florida,” he says.

Those cores consist of advanced technology components, featuring emerging tools like genomics, proteomics, cell-based screening, flow cytometry and a drug discovery platform with several screening and pharmacology technologies, including a Kalypsys robotic system that can screen more than 1 million compounds in 24 hours.

Together, they comprise Scripps’ Translational Research Institute— sort of a center within a center— that works with the basic research arm to develop new lead compounds to fight disease. “This translational component lets our researchers take their projects further than they could most anywhere else,” says Griffin, who has joint duty as head of the TRI.

Interestingly, of the various technology platforms Scripps had intended to develop as part of the TRI, the one that it eventually lagged on— bioimaging— proved to be a blessing. As the anchor for biotech development in South Florida, Scripps was expected to help bring in other scientific entities to the area, and soon Lerner found out that an institute well known for imaging— the Max Planck Institute— was interested in building a new facility.

As a recruiting effort, Lerner convinced Max Planck President Peter Gruss and his scientific directors to visit Jupiter for a two-day symposium. “At first, they were convinced that any American expansion had to be in Boston, San Diego or someplace like that. But, by dinner the first night, Gruss said his directors had done a complete 180 and told him Max Planck had to build their new center here.

“That was a big win for us,” Orf adds. “Not only does it give us a perfect institution to complement our research and technology strengths, but it legitimizes this area as a science hub.”

Since that announcement, two other institutes, the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies— another one of Scripps’ San Diego neighbors— and Oregon Health and Science University’s Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute, have developed sites in nearby Port St. Lucie, and some clinical organizations also have expressed interest in helping Scripps Florida move its discoveries into community clinics.

Ron Davis
Ron Davis, who studies the molecular basis underlying memory formation using a variety of model systems, will direct Scripps’ department of neuroscience, one of five new research departments developed for the Orlando campus.

Scripps also has been hard at work on another mandate: to collaborate with state academics. As Orf notes, science education is a significant element of Scripps. “People tend to overlook this, because we don’t have undergraduates, but I always like to point out that we are Scripps dot edu. The institute definitely has an entrepreneurial bent, but we are foremost a research and academic institution.”

So, in addition to its own education efforts— like at the La Jolla campus, Scripps Florida offers graduate degrees in chemistry and biology— Scripps Florida has peer-to-peer collaborations and cooperation agreements (basically an agreement that whenever scientists from separate institutions talk to each other, lawyers don’t have to get in the way) with each major research university in Florida as well as internships and summer programs with local colleges and high schools.

“There is an amazing sense of community and collaborative spirit among the researchers here,” says Roy Smith, chairman of the metabolism and aging department, who admits he was initially skeptical before coming to Scripps because of the lack of scientific culture in the area, though he absolutely has no regrets now. “Everyone knows that we’re building something brand new and unique here, for ourselves and the state, and everyone is determined to make it work.”

Nick Zagorski ( is a science writer at ASBMB.

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