Star by Star, Southern Cal Builds Strength in Bioscience

Peter Zhou, 
U. of Southern California

Raymond C. Stevens
November 03, 2014

Raymond C. Stevens and Peter Kuhn, two of the country’s most successful researchers of molecular structures and processes and their application to pharmaceutical-drug manufacture and medical treatments, have become the latest hires in what the University of Southern California is billing as its "game-changing" enlistment of biomedical scientists.

In short order, the university has recruited dozens of prominent figures as it shifts its studies in life sciences from describing disease to predicting the likely course of people’s illnesses. It has intently sought out "rainmakers" who bring along federal and private support and the near-guarantee that plenty more of it will rain down on the Los Angeles institution.

Mr. Stevens, who returns as a professor of biological sciences and chemistry to the university where he earned his doctorate, and Mr. Kuhn, a professor of biological sciences, were both most recently at the Scripps Research Institute. They will bring a combined 50 staff researchers to Los Angeles from La Jolla, 110 miles down Interstate 5.

Mr. Stevens says the lure for him, as for many other leading bioscientists, has been Southern California’s emphasis on "convergent bioscience," a blend of biology, medicine, biotechnology, and engineering that corrects a trend that has persisted since Leonardo da Vinci drew his "Vitruvian Man" in about 1490: "Since that time, we’ve been dissecting science more and more and more," to now end up with 130 subdisciplines in medicine, 60 in biology, and 40 in chemistry, he says. "Now is the time to merge and bring all these things back together."

Bioscience research centers near and far can expect Southern California to tempt their leading lights to join it. In a recent address to the faculty, the university’s president, C.L. Max Nikias, said that thanks to good recession management five years ago, and a galloping capital campaign that is already nearly two-thirds of the way to its $6-billion goal, "we can recruit anyone we want."

In the past four or five years, it has recruited 75 new professors and institute directors to its Keck School of Medicine, and has assigned medicine and health 45 percent of its total budget, up from 14.

Mr. Kuhn, a German-born, SUNY-trained specialist in the physics and mathematics of cancer metastasis, says Southern California’s approach has a strong appeal. "Doing it this way, science is really fun," says Mr. Kuhn, who has found a way to detect and characterize cancer cells using a blood sample. "You work together on incredibly relevant problems to find solutions that are truly meaningful."

Southern California officials announced his and Mr. Stevens’s appointments last month at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, named for Gary K. Michelson, a retired orthopedic spinal surgeon who donated $50-million on the proviso that it spark technology transfers. He, like Mr. Kuhn and Mr. Stevens, has spun off companies that capitalized on his inventions and techniques.

University officials forecast a 10-year outlay of $1-billion to "convergent bioscience." With further recruiting, the Michelson center is expected to house about 25 more research teams. At the groundbreaking, officials announced the appointments of two other Scripps scientists, Vadim Cherezov, a structural biophysicist, and Vsevolod (Seva) Katritch, a computational biologist, whose departures will further roil the waters at the prestigious but financially troubled La Jolla facility.

Mr. Stevens, who has created therapeutic molecules used in breakthrough medications and has founded three National Institutes of Health research centers, says his decision to move was influenced, in part, by his experience as founding director of the iHuman Institute at ShanghaiTech University, a role he assumed in 2012 after going to China on sabbatical.

There, he saw that Chinese bioscience-research institutions had not hesitated to adopt English as a scientific lingua franca to further their commitment to convergent bioscience. The observation informed his thinking about how best to improve communication at Southern California among bioscience researchers from disparate fields with varying languages and kinds of conceptualization. In particular, he wants to help the university spread its ideas about convergent science to California schools and colleges.

As part of that effort, Mr. Stevens has approached students in the university’s School of Cinematic Arts and its digital-arts division with this pitch: "You can create the next great movie, or you can use the same approaches to show how the human body works in great detail."