The Grow Dozen: 12 Alumni who are making a difference in biotechnology
Jeff Browning PhD’76, Biochemistry
As senior director of immunobiology research at Boston-based Biogen Idec, Browning has presided over the development of several new pharmaceutical drugs. One success story gives him particular satisfaction. Earlier in his career, Browning co-discovered the surface form of lymphotoxin, an important signaling chemical in the human body. The discovery led to the development of Baminercept, an early-stage drug designed to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Biogen is currently ushering this drug through human clinical trials, and scientists there are optimistic it will work to treat other autoimmune diseases as well.
James Burmester BS’83 PhD’89, Biochemistry
Burmester’s work at the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation in Marshfield, Wis., shows the intriguing ways biotechnology is intersecting with medical care. As a senior research scientist at Marshfield’s Center for Human Genetics, Burmester studies how genes and drugs interact, searching for genes that can help doctors fine-tune drug dosages given to patients. Right now, for instance, he’s studying what genes affect the activity of Warfarin, a widely used, but tricky, blood-thinning drug. This emerging field, known as personalized medicine, offers the promise of medical therapies tailored to each patient’s unique genetic profile.
Michel Chartrain PhD’86, Bacteriology
Bread, cheese and wine are all products of fermentation, but so are many of our medications. This is Chartrain’s bailiwick—coaxing bacteria to mass-produce the proteins and molecules that go into our drugs. As a distinguished senior investigator in the bioprocess research and development unit at Merck, he and his team tend to enormous vats of microbial life, adjusting conditions to create the optimal environment for fermentation. With this technology, he recently devised a novel method for generating plasmids for DNA vaccines, a critical step in the creation of effective pharmaceuticals.
Krishna Ella PhD’93, Plant Pathology
Not everyone manages to realize his grandest dream, but Ella is well on his way. After studying and working in the United States, Ella returned to his native India vowing to fight the spread of infectious diseases in developing countries. In 1996, he and his wife, Suchitra, founded Bharat Biotech with the goal of producing vaccines for diseases such as hepatitis and typhoid for pennies on the dollar. Bharat has supplied more than 1 billion vaccine doses to Asia, Africa and Latin America, and the company has two grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop affordable vaccines for malaria and rotavirus. Meanwhile, Ella has emerged as one of his country’s strongest advocates for research and development. He says his dream is to connect UW-Madison with India to act as a catalyst for its agricultural economy. One way he’s working toward that goal is by paving a route for Indian science students to study at the UW through the new Khorana Scholars exchange program.
Brendlyn Faison PhD’85, Bacteriology
Since the beginning of her career, Faison has used the tools of biotechnology to protect the environment—although in many different ways. At consumer giant Procter & Gamble, she assessed the biodegradability of diaper materials and helped develop environmentally compatible fabric softeners. At the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, she worked on bioprocesses for converting coal to liquid fuels and removing radioactive materials from wastewater. And now, as a microbiologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she reviews new public health-related research while monitoring the emergence of new soil- and waterborne pathogens.
George Golumbeski PhD’85, Genetics
Earlier this year, Golumbeski left his job at pharmaceutical giant Novartis, where he had been vice president of business development, to take the reins of the Austrian biotech company Nabrivia Therapeutics. As chief executive officer, he oversees a 55-person team working on the next generation of antibiotics—including three developmental products designed to fight methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, a frightening bacterial infection that doesn’t respond to common antibiotics. Golumbeski enjoys tackling the scientific, organizational and fiscal issues in bringing new drugs to patients. “After nearly 20 years,” he says, “my work remains fresh, complex and very challenging.”
Michelle Higgin PhD’04, Biochemistry
Higgin’s diverse skills are helping her become a young leader within the biotech industry. After completing a postdoctoral position at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, she joined PharmaDirections, a North Carolina-based company that provides scientific and strategic oversight to biotech and pharmaceutical start-ups. As the company’s biologics development manager, she wears many hats, serving as a scientific advisor to some clients and a business-development representative to others. She’s overseen clinical trials, managed drug formulation projects and completed key experiments. That broad perspective aids in her role on the national committee for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, one of the industry’s biggest professional associations.
Robert Morrow PhD’87, Horticulture
Morrow’s technology attacks one of the major drawbacks of being an astronaut: the food. As a senior scientist at Orbital Technologies, Morrow is working on better ways to grow plants in space so that one day, astronauts can trade in their processed, vacuum-packed meals for fresh greens. In 2002, a compact plant-growth system he helped develop was tested aboard the International Space Station, and other models have been taken on space shuttle flights. Larger models of such systems might not just enable longer space missions, Morrow says—they could help people grow food while living on the moon or Mars.
James Prudent BS’85, Bacteriology
Madison biotech startup Centrose is based on a sweet idea. Co-founded by Prudent in 2007, the company creates novel drugs by adding sugar molecules to currently marketed pharmaceuticals in ways that enhance their original properties. It’s just the latest in a string of intriguing ideas from Prudent, a veteran of the Madison biotech scene. A former chief scientific officer at EraGen Biosciences, Prudent made a name for himself at Third Wave Technologies, where he invented a sensitive DNA and RNA detection technology and then helped turn it into a multimillion dollar product line. And don’t expect Prudent to stop tinkering. “The obsession of using billions of years of evolution to create better ways of living just has not gone away,” he says.
Richard Scheller BS’74, Biochemistry
As executive vice president of research and chief scientific officer at Genentech, Scheller oversees strategy for the company’s research and drug discovery activities. This is no small task. Genentech, which is headquartered in California’s Silicon Valley, is considered one of the founders of the biotech industry and is now a world leader in the production of cancer medicines. It has an impressive number of drugs on the market, and one of the most robust product pipelines in the industry.
Terry Sivesind BS’75, Agricultural Economics
While he’s not a bench scientist, Sivesind may have more to do with the growth of Madison’s biotech community than anyone. As a founder of Wisconsin Investment Partners, an angel investors network designed to seed local biotech start-ups, he’s helped raise and distribute more than $5 million to jumpstart fledgling companies. And he’s an industry insider in another way. Since getting in on the ground floor at Promega, one of Madison’s best-established biotech firms, he has been a founder or senior executive at several firms, including PanVera, Mirus, Takara Bio USA, Metabiologics, Renovar, Poseidon Probes and Cellectar. He also runs the Silver Lining Foundation, a private family foundation that focuses on helping Wisconsin’s disadvantaged youth and families.
Willem “Pim” Stemmer PhD’86, Plant Pathology
Stemmer is an engineer, albeit not your typical kind. He’s what you might call a bio-therapeutics engineer, using the human body’s own molecular building blocks to create new and better pharmaceuticals. To this end, he invented a technology known as DNA shuffling, where related genes from various species are combined in new ways to create novel genes and thus novel proteins. Stemmer co-founded Maxygen Incorporated in 1997 to commercialize this technology, and he oversaw the successful development of a dengue fever vaccine, as well as an immune system enhancer. Another of his engineered molecules led to the founding of the Avidia Research Institute, which developed a novel treatment for Crohn’s disease while Stemmer was with the firm. He’s now CEO of Amunix, which he co-founded in 2005.This article was posted in Biotechnology, Fall 2008, Grow Dozen, Working Life and tagged Agricultural economics, Alumni, Bacteriology, Biochemistry, Biotechnology, Brendlyn Faison, Genetics, George Golumbeski, Grow Dozen, Grow Fall 2008, Horticulture, In the Field, James Burmester, James Prudent, Jeff Browning, Krishna Ella, Michel Chartrain, Michelle Higgin, Pim Stemmer, plant pathology, Richard Scheller, Robert Morrow, Terry Sivesind, The Dozen, The Grow Dozen, Willem Stemmer, Working Life.