Schlessinger named director of Yale’s new Cancer Biology Institute

The Yale Cancer Center has named Joseph Schlessinger, a world-renowned leader in the field of signal transduction, as the founding director of the new Cancer Biology Institute at West Campus.

The appointment, which is effective immediately, is a major step toward building Yale’s basic and translational cancer research team.

Schlessinger will retain his positions as professor and chair of Yale’s Department of Pharmacology and will split his time between West Campus, where the institute will be based, and the Medical Campus.

The Cancer Biology Institute will bring together a diverse group of scientists to focus on complementary areas of research in cancer biology. The primary goal is to pinpoint the root molecular causes of cancer, identify new molecular targets and develop new drug treatments to contain or even eradicate them. Cancer researchers hope that targeting the genetic mutations that drive different types of cancer will lead to genetically precise treatments geared toward an individual patient’s molecular profile — something Schlessinger has worked toward throughout his career.

“Yossi Schlessinger is a world-class scientist with an unparalleled track record of turning new targets into medicines that help cancer patients live longer,” said Dr. Thomas Lynch, director of the Yale Cancer Center. “Under his leadership, the Yale Cancer Biology Institute will become one of the world’s great centers for understanding the fundamental nature of cancer and finding ways to defeat it”

Schlessinger, 65, came to Yale from New York University School of Medicine in 2001. In a prolific 35-year scientific career, he has focused primarily on the transmembrane receptors that drive various forms of cancer and the development of drug therapies to combat them. Along the way he cofounded three biotechnology companies — Sugen (which is now owned by Pfizer), Plexxikon (based in Berkeley) and Kolltan (based in New Haven).

Schlessinger’s insights have resulted in drugs that are having a major impact on the lives of cancer patients. Sugen’s drug Sutent, approved by the FDA in 2006 for kidney and stomach cancers, was one of the first in a new generation of “targeted” cancer drugs based on fundamental discoveries about cell signaling made in Schlessinger’s laboratory. The experimental compound PLX4032, which was discovered by Plexxikon and is currently in clinical development in partnership with Roche, has shown great promise in clinical trials for the treatment of melanoma and is now in phase III trials. The drug is also in phase I trials for the treatment of colorectal cancer.

Under Schlessinger’s direction, the Cancer Biology Institute plans to hire 150 research scientists, including 11 principal investigators, over the next three to four years. They will work closely with scientists at the new Yale Center for Genome Analysis at West Campus in order to identify the genes that drive cancer. Yale’s Genome Center is applying the fast-moving technology of automated DNA sequencing — which has dropped in cost from $100,000 per million base pairs to just 25 cents — to better understand and exploit the molecular profiles of various tumor types.

“Yossi Schlessinger has defined the mechanisms by which an important class of receptors control cell growth and has applied this to the treatment of cancer. His taste for excellence has led to outstanding faculty recruitments in Pharmacology. I look forward to Yossi applying these talents to build an outstanding Cancer Biology Institute,” said School of Medicine Dean Dr. Robert J. Alpern.

Yale Cancer Center has long been recognized as a leading institution for the research and application of fundamental science. It was one of the first in the nation to become designated by the National Cancer Institute as a Comprehensive Cancer Center, and remains the only one in southern New England. Schlessinger’s appointment to the Cancer Biology Institute comes a year after the opening of the $467 million Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven, which brought all the components of world-class cancer care under one roof.

Yale acquired West Campus in 2007. It includes 1.6 million square feet of research, office and warehouse space. The Cancer Biology Institute will join four other scientific institutes at various stages of development on the West Campus. These include institutes focused on Microbial Diversity, Chemical Biology, Systems Biology and Biodesign. The institutes are multidisciplinary in nature, drawing on the expertise of faculty in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering and Applied Science, and School of Medicine. Yale is also developing several core facilities to transform the way biological research is conducted at Yale, including a facility for High Throughput Cell Biology, the Small Molecule Discovery Center and the Center for Genome Analysis.

Creation of the Cancer Biology Institute, along with other research facilities under development at West Campus, gives Lynch and Schlessinger hope for the future. According to Lynch, “We can see the day when we understand not only the genetic mutations that drive all cancers, but the molecular basis of metastasis. And when we do, we may finally be able to say that we are on the road to winning the war on cancer in our lifetime.”

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