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3.01.2011

Drug Discovery Pioneer and Biotech Entrepreneur Joins Miller School Faculty and Leadership

An internationally recognized researcher of novel drug therapies for neuropsychiatric disorders and epigenetics has joined the Miller School faculty and leadership, bringing his team, his wealth of discovery and his drive to find new treatments for autism, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, depression, addiction, Parkinson’s, macular degeneration and other human disorders.

Claes Wahlestedt, M.D., Ph.D., a founding faculty member and professor of neuroscience and molecular therapeutics at the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute, officially starts today as professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, based at the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics (HIHG), where he will direct the new Genomic Interdisciplinary Therapeutic Innovation Center (G-ITIC), to be established at the institute. He also will serve as associate dean for therapeutic innovations.

“At a time when the development of new drugs to fight disorders of the brain is in high demand but productivity is low, Dr. Wahlestedt and his team are using genetic and epigenetic tools to identify targets and discovering a new armamentarium of drugs that can shelter our patients from these dreadful illnesses,” said Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean, and CEO of University of Miami Health System. “He is a true pioneer who combines genetics and drug discovery to attack neuropsychiatric disorders, aiming for their Achilles’ heel. We are delighted he is joining our team at the Hussman Institute for Human Genomics.”

As associate dean and director of the new center, Wahlestedt will continue his NIH-funded research on drug discovery and functional genomics and build collaborations not only between the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Hussman Institute, but with other departments, clinicians and researchers across the University.

“We are excited to have Dr. Wahlestedt and his group join the HIHG team,’’ said Margaret Pericak-Vance, Ph.D., the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Professor of Human Genomics and director of the Hussman Institute. “Claes and his group will make UM one of the strongest institutes for epigenetics in the nation and will help develop our program in genomic therapeutics.”

Charles B. Nemeroff, M.D., Ph.D., Leonard M. Miller Professor and Chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, who has known Wahlestedt for 30 years, called him “one of the most creative and talented neuroscientists in the world.’’

“He represents the epitome of the modern translational scientist, taking findings in genomics and identifying novel targets for drug development for severe neuropsychiatric disorders,’’ Nemeroff said. “He is a much needed and welcome addition to the UM family. He will collaborate with a variety of basic scientists and clinical investigators from several different departments.”

Wahlestedt, a founding director of the Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics and a department chair at the Karolinska Institute in his native Sweden, said he is eager to return to a large academic medical center to nurture and bridge the ideas of basic scientists, clinicians and other talented faculty who are more likely to discover novel therapies if they tear down the “silos” that are all too common at academic institutions.

“The key is to be interdisciplinary,” Wahlestedt said. “There is all this new wonderful science out there, but there is so much, picking winners is hard. Nobody can do it alone. If we can help get people talking to each other who don’t normally talk to each other, and inject a little of our new technology, things can happen. There could be someone in the cancer field who has an idea for a drug that is very applicable to the neuroscience field, and vice versa.’’

The author of some 200 papers in major scientific journals in his field, Wahlestedt has a long-standing interest in non-protein-coding RNA (epigenetics) and pioneered various uses of antisense RNA, siRNA and small molecules that target RNA. At Scripps Florida, he co-founded CURNA, a spin-off company based on his patent for exploiting a cell’s ability to make therapeutic proteins, a discovery that holds promise for potential treatments for such diseases as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. CURNA recently sold for $10 million.

Born in Karlskrona, Sweden, Wahlestedt earned his M.D. and Ph.D. from Lund University in southern Sweden and completed postdoctoral work at the Georgetown Institute of the Neurosciences at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and the Institute for Immunology at Kyoto University.

He spent four years as assistant professor in the Division of Neurobiology, Department of Neurology and Neuroscience, at Cornell University Medical College in New York, and was subsequently adjunct professor of biochemistry, and pharmacology and therapeutics at McGill University in Montreal. He also spent more than a decade directing drug discovery or genomics efforts in the pharmaceutical industry for Astra-Zeneca, Pharmacia & Upjohn, and Pharmacia Corporation.

Moving to Scripps in 2005, he quickly made his mark in Florida, serving as chairman of the Florida Center for Universal Research to Eradicate Disease (Florida CURED), a statewide center funded by the Florida Department of Health to champion efforts to eradicate diseases by expediting discovery and implementation of cures. Last October, he was awarded the center’s Senator Jim King Leadership Award for his outstanding efforts to expand and enhance Florida’s biomedical research.

Wahlestedt and his wife, Lisa, who is also a medical doctor, have two children.

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