Like father, like son

The unexpected collaboration started with a phone call.

A few years ago, Salk American Cancer Society Professor Tony Hunter was catching up with his older son, Sean, who at the time was a new graduate student in the cancer biology program at Stanford University. Sean had recently joined a lab led by bioengineering Professor Jennifer Cochran and wanted his dad’s opinion about a research project he might pursue.

In 2015, Sean had attended a talk by cancer researcher Frank McCormick about his work on a protein made and exported by pancreatic cancer cells called leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF). LIF is a powerful cytokine (a type of protein) that signals cells to adopt a primitive, less differentiated state and could be a promising target for treating cancer. For his project, Sean told his father, he was proposing to engineer proteins to inhibit LIF function.

“And I nearly fell off my chair when he said that, because, unbeknownst to Sean, my lab had been working on this same protein in pancreatic cancer for several years,” Hunter says. “And I said ‘yes, of course I think it would be a great project for you because we think it’s a great project too!’” A few years later, in 2019, Hunter’s lab at Salk reported the results of their work showing how LIF is involved in pathways that drive pancreatic cancer progression and could be blocked by an antagonist antibody to slow pancreatic cancer progression in a mouse model—a discovery that points to LIF as a potentially useful therapeutic target as well as a biomarker to help diagnose the disease more efficiently.

Hunter and his son decided to team up for the next step in their next investigation: Using protein engineering, Sean designed a therapeutic protein that could bind tightly to LIF and sequester it. Then, using a mouse model of pancreatic cancer developed in Hunter’s lab, the researchers tested the new therapy and found that it indeed blocked LIF signals involved in pancreatic cancer. They published their work in the journal Communications Biology on April 12, 2021. The publication marks the Hunters’ first formal research collaboration.

“It obviously is very exciting to be able to publish a paper with Sean,” Hunter says. “He’s turned out to be an excellent scientist and he knows what he’s doing … It’s been great working with him.”

Before this collaboration, Sean got his introduction to running experiments in his dad’s Salk lab, volunteering there for three summers during high school before building on his scientific education as an undergraduate and in graduate school. Sean’s path to science was inspired by his parents, both of whom are biologists.

While the son has moved toward translational research and the father remains focused on basic science, both are continuing to pursue new avenues to treat cancer.

Salk receives $1 million from Biomed Realty to support innovative cancer research and faculty

The Salk Institute received a matching $1 million gift from the BioMed Realty Management Team, which was used to fund the recruitment of award-winning cancer researcher Christina Towers and to support her research and that of the Salk Cancer Center. The challenge match—where BioMed Realty matches dollar for dollar, up to $1 million—will also support Salk’s bold Conquering Cancer Initiative, which is harnessing cutting-edge approaches to fight some of the deadliest cancers, including: pancreatic, ovarian, lung, colon, brain (glioblastoma) and triple-negative breast cancer.

Spearheading the gift was BioMed Realty’s CEO, Tim Schoen, who is a Salk Trustee and chairman of the Institute’s Conquering Cancer Initiative Advisory Committee.

Towers, who joined Salk’s renowned NCI-designated Cancer Center as an assistant professor in December, examines how cancer cells recycle both their own nutrients and the power-generating structures called mitochondria in order to survive. By using a combination of gene-editing techniques, light-based genetic manipulation (optogenetics), three-dimensional miniature organs (“organoids”) and detailed imaging, she aims to identify the best ways to target the recycling pathways that tumors use to survive. Her research aims to lead to new targeted cancer therapies that can improve patient outcomes and survival.

Neuroscientists receive $4.4 million from NIH BRAIN Initiative

Salk Institute neuroscientists Edward Callaway, Sreekanth Chalasani and Nancy Padilla Coreano were named recipients in the 2020 round of grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to gain new insights into brain function.

The grants, totaling $4.4 million, are awarded through the BRAIN Initiative, as part of a large effort to use knowledge about how the brain works to develop more effective therapies for neurological disorders. Additionally, the BRAIN awards support scientific teams in order to advance neurotechnologies and provide a deeper understanding of the link between brain function and behavior.

Donor Spotlight – Tim Schoen

Tim Schoen is the CEO of BioMed Realty, a San Diego-based leading provider of real estate solutions for the life science and technology industries, and a generous Salk Institute supporter. He’s also a Salk Trustee and the chairman of the Salk’s Conquering Cancer Initiative Advisory Committee. We wanted to learn more about his journey from businessman to avid supporter of scientific research, as well as what he enjoys doing in his spare time.

Q: You’ve been successful in business, with significant experience in commercial real estate and corporate finance. Can you tell us a bit about your path in life and how you got to where you are?

A: I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and graduated from Minnesota State University with a degree in finance and international business. After graduation in 1990, I moved to Southern California to work for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and subsequently earned an MBA from University of California, Irvine. I entered the commercial real estate and REIT (Real Estate Investment Trusts) industry after business school. I found that commercial real estate and REITs combined my interests in capital markets with the tangible nature and design aspects of real estate. Then you layer on a vibrant industry like life sciences and it has proven to be very exciting for me professionally. I started out in commercial real estate in Los Angeles with the REIT Kilroy Realty Corporation (NYSE: KRC), and stayed there for nearly 10 years. Then I did a ten-year stint with a Healthcare REIT, HealthPeak (NYSE: PEAK), where we grew the company to become the first healthcare REIT admitted into the S&P 500. I served in several roles ending as PEAK’s CFO from 2011 to 2016. I then became president and CEO of BioMed Realty in 2016 after the company was taken private by Blackstone. We’ve since grown the company from $8 billion to $20 billion over the last five years, serving over 250 biotech, medical device and technology companies in Boston, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, New York and Cambridge (U.K.).

Q: What was it about Salk that encouraged you to become a supporter of scientific research?

A: Being in the biotech industry, I recognized the value of basic science research and Salk is at the top of the mountain regarding fundamental research. BioMed Realty has supported Salk since its inception, so we wanted to continue our commitment with both our time and treasury. Another reason for our support was Salk’s Conquering Cancer Initiative. It really attracted me personally. My mother passed away from glioblastoma, and the Conquering Cancer Initiative was established, in part, to provide support and fund research to combat this very deadly cancer. While I’m not the only one to lose a loved one to cancer—cancer has touched many of our lives—it definitely motivated me to support CCI.

Q: In addition to your generous support of Salk’s Conquering Cancer Initiative, you serve on the CCI Advisory Committee. Tell us what prompted you to take an active role.

A: BioMed Realty operates mission-critical lab office space for some of the largest companies in the life sciences industry—helping our 250+ business partners discover and advance the next generation of medicines and therapies. So, I naturally wanted to get involved in supporting research so fundamental to our industry. The team at Salk, namely Sandy Liarakos, helped me find ways to get more involved in advancing Salk’s innovative cancer research more directly through the CCI Advisory Committee. It’s exciting for me and BioMed Realty to be a part of such important work in finding a cure for cancer.

Q: What is the strategy of the Conquering Cancer Initiative and how is Salk’s approach different?

A: Salk is going after six deadly cancers: colon, pancreatic, ovarian, lung, glioblastoma and triple negative breast. I really think there’s something exciting about taking on difficult challenges. And it’s not just about finding cures, but also looking at improving early detection to provide better outcomes for patients. Right now, you have many people who don’t have much hope when they receive a cancer diagnosis and I believe Salk’s approach has the potential to change that trajectory.

Q: The BioMed Realty Management Team recently gave a $1M matching gift to Salk to fund the Institute’s groundbreaking cancer efforts as well as recruit award-winning cancer researcher Christina Towers. Can you tell us why the management team is excited to support her?

A: I credit Salk’s leadership. Rusty and Reuben Shaw (director of the Salk Cancer Center) called me one day and said they wanted to recruit Dr. Christina Towers because her work dovetailed perfectly with Salk’s cancer research, but they lacked the funds. For the BioMed management team it wasn’t even a question. We immediately decided this is a mission worth supporting financially, and to demonstrate to Dr. Towers our confidence in her work aimed at improving treatment options for cancer patients. We also made the gift a matching pledge to expand the base of supporters for the Salk, and to encourage the community to come together in support of her and the Institute.

Q: What is your hope for cancer research for the future?

A: Our most precious asset is time, so I hope we can one day soon find effective treatments for people to live longer and also help improve their quality of life after diagnosis.

Q: You’re also a Salk Trustee, having joined the Salk Board a little more than a year ago. What has the experience been like?

A: It’s been great. We haven’t had many in-person meetings because of the pandemic, but meeting and working with such a great group of people has been really rewarding. I count myself fortunate to get to visit with notable people such as Irwin Jacobs, Liz Keadle, Jay Flatley, Ernest Rady and Mary Jane Salk. Then there’s our chair, Dan Lewis, who wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for the incredible research at Salk in Tony Hunter’s lab, and his leadership and passion for Salk is inspiring. And I can’t say enough about the wonderful leadership of President Rusty Gage. The Board really is a unique ecosystem committed to making a difference.

Q: Speaking of the pandemic, what are some of the things you’ve done to take care of yourself during this time? Is there a takeaway lesson you’d like to share?

A: I took up walking five miles a day—I think I walked every street in Rancho Bernardo at this point. I have also gotten to know my neighbors better since I am home more often. As far as takeaways, I think the good news is, as a society, we’ve embraced using technology to help us stay engaged during the pandemic and hopefully this allows us to be more efficient with our time.

Q: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working or donating your time to Salk?

A: Before the pandemic, I enjoyed playing basketball. I’m looking forward to getting the vaccine in part so I can get back on the basketball court. I also enjoy mountain biking and hiking—I recently went on a 26-mile hiking trip in Sedona.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers about Salk or your experiences?

A: I think it’s incumbent on all of us to get the community more involved with supporting Salk. It’s a gem in the biomedical research arena; a world-renowned institution boasting some of the very best researchers in their given fields. I am very excited to play a small role in helping the Salk Institute expand it’s already impressive influence.

Postdoctoral fellows win distinguished awards for cancer, neuroscience and more

Tom Franken, a senior postdoctoral fellow in the lab of John Reynolds, was awarded an NIH Pathway to Independence grant to fund a 5-year project to study how the brain distinguishes objects from background. A deeper understanding of this process is important to develop better diagnostic tools and treatments for central visual processing disorders.

Heather McGee, a radiation oncologist and a senior postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Susan Kaech, was awarded over $1 million by NIH with a Pathway to Independence grant from the National Cancer Institute. This 5-year project will enable McGee to study how radiation activates cancer-fighting immune cells in different tumor micro-environments. McGee will conduct the research jointly at Salk and UC San Diego.

Nuttida Rungratsameetaweemana, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Terrence Sejnowski, garnered the prestigious Cell Press Anuradha Rao Memorial Award. Rungratsameetaweemana uses computational methods to investigate various dynamics of different types of epileptic seizures, with the goal of identifying unique signatures that could be used to guide personalized patient- and type-specific seizure treatment.

Ronald Evans receives 2021 Asan Award in basic medicine

Salk Professor Ronald Evans was awarded the 2021 Asan Award in Basic Medicine by the Asan Foundation. This Korean foundation supports critical medical research as well as social and medical welfare programs. The award, which totaled $250,000, recognizes “medical scientists who have achieved remarkable accomplishments in the fields of basic and clinical medicine to promote human health,” according to the Asan Foundation. Evans, who is the director of Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory and March of Dimes Chair in Molecular and Developmental Biology, is the first international recipient of this prestigious award.

Uri Manor to receive more than $690,000 from Chan Zuckerberg initiative to advance biological imaging

Assistant Research Professor Uri Manor, director of the Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Core Facility, will receive $690,116 over three years from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) as one of 22 CZI Imaging Scientists. With the funding, Manor will create imaging tools such as probes and image-processing as well as analysis software for biologists, including software that relies on AI technology, to make previously invisible cellular dynamics visible.

Dmitry Lyumkis receives career award from NSF

Assistant Professor Dmitry Lyumkis has received a Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation. The CAREER award supports early career scientists who serve as academic role models and lead scientific advances in their organization. Lyumkis will receive almost $1.8 million over four years to examine how some viruses such as HIV hijack and interact with host protein machinery to permanently alter the host genome to sustain infection.

Collaborative team awarded $1.2 million by Larry L. Hillblom Foundation to study brain aging and dementia

A collaborative team of Salk scientists led by Professor John Reynolds will receive $1.2 million over four years as part of a Network Grant from the Larry L. Hillblom Foundation to examine aging across the life span, including age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. The research will advance our understanding of aging mechanisms at the cognitive, genomic and cellular levels with potentially direct translatability to humans. Other members of the team include Salk President and Professor Rusty Gage, Assistant Research Professor Uri Manor, Senior Staff Researcher Courtney Glavis-Bloom and Carol Marchetto, an assistant professor at UC San Diego.

$200,000 gifted to Salk’s Coastal Plant Restoration program to fight climate change

Recently, donors completed a matching challenge, gifting $200,000 to Salk’s Coastal Plant Restoration (CPR) program to address increasingly urgent needs to preserve some of the world’s largest carbon reservoirs and restore global wetland ecosystems. This approach, led by Salk Professor Joseph Noel, holds great promise for safeguarding these tremendous carbon sinks while stabilizing and, in many cases, rebuilding land lost to erosion and unprecedented sea level rise.

Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative is a scalable, simple and bold approach to drawing down excess carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere by developing coastal and crop plants that are efficient at capturing and storing carbon deep in the ground for long periods.

Kristy Kitzmiller, a founding member of the HPI Advisory Committee, and her husband, Brandon Moran, committed $100,000 to CPR in June of 2019, in the form of a matching challenge. The list of generous donors completing the challenge included Greg and Rebecca Arnold, Thomas and Tomomi Duterme, David and Cheryl Lawrence, Goldman Sachs Gives – Tom Morrow and Audry Ai, Eric Ross and Nicole MacNeel, and Neal and Margaret Schmale.

This support will enable Salk scientists to, for the first time in history, sequence the genomes of many of the critical plants that comprise wetland ecosystems. The resulting insights will allow the team to assemble a roadmap for the successful preservation and restoration of these global ecosystems with native plant varieties that can withstand current and future climate conditions.

Salk awards the 2021 Tang fellowship

Helen McRae, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Professor Diana Hargreaves, was selected as the 2021 Salk Institute Tang Prize Foundation Fellow to support her work of identifying novel ways to convert tumor-promoting macrophages into tumor-fighting macrophages. The one-year Tang Prize Foundation Fellowship, created by Tony Hunter, is awarded through an internal competition to a postdoctoral fellow in their first or second year who is conducting a research project investigating the molecular basis of cancer.

Salk scientists receive $1.5 million from the Conrad Prebys Foundation’s inaugural grant cycle

In March, Salk Professor Thomas Albright was awarded $1 million and Assistant Professor Edward Stites awarded $500,000 by The Conrad Prebys Foundation as part of its inaugural round of grants. The funding will support Albright’s project looking at how our visual sense changes as we age or gain experience at new visual tasks, and Stites’ project investigating how specific FDA-approved drugs function against three types of melanoma mutations, which drive approximately 80 percent of melanomas.

In total, The Conrad Prebys Foundation allocated $78 million in grants to fund 121 projects. Salk joins a long list of recipients, which included other prominent San Diego institutions such as Rady Children’s Hospital, Sharp HealthCare, KPBS, Scripps Research, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and Mingei International Museum, among others. A complete list of awardees can be found at

Professor Thomas Albright, director of Salk’s Vision Center Laboratory and Conrad T. Prebys Chair in Vision Research, will use novel approaches to understand how experience and age affect the brain’s abilities—in visual sensation, perception and decision-making—to adapt. His team will investigate how the visual system functions to improve performance on demanding visual tasks and decisions as well as how to reverse or mitigate impairments of visual function that are associated with aging.

Assistant Professor Edward Stites, who is a physician-scientist and the Hearst Foundation Developmental Chair, combines mathematical and computational approaches with experimental cancer biology to unravel the relationships between cancer-causing mutations and the response to treatment. Despite personalized cancer medication being within reach, physicians and scientists still aren’t able to use specific genomic data to predict which cancer drugs will provide the biggest benefit for an individual patient. In 2019, the Stites lab discovered the mechanism of why some patients with a certain gene mutation benefit from a chemotherapy drug called cetuximab. Now his lab is applying their computational and experimental approach to three common forms of melanoma, each of which is caused by a different mutation within the biological system that causes cancer growth.

Three professors honored with endowed chairs

Professors Wolfgang Busch, Satchin Panda and Tatyana Sharpee were recently recognized for their contributions and dedication to advancing science through research by being named to endowed chairs at the Salk Institute.

Busch, inaugural holder of the Hess Chair in Plant Science, studies plants’ roots, which are not only critical for obtaining water and nutrients from the soil but also for storing potentially billions of tons of carbon per year from the atmosphere, thereby constituting a powerful tool for mitigating climate change.

Panda, holder of the Rita and Richard Atkinson Chair, studies the body’s circadian timekeeping system to better understand a wide range of health issues, including digestion, cancer, cognitive functions and more.

Sharpee, holder of the Edwin K. Hunter Chair, uses advanced methods from information theory, mathematics and physics to chart the principles by which the brain manages energy and information, with implications for understanding psychiatric and neurodegenerative conditions as well as aging.

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