Oct 2013 WEB - page 8

“I run
R&D at
now, but
work, the
work would
be in
the dark
Lasker, continued from page 1
Scheller’s goal was to understand how
neurotransmitter release works. Among the first
proteins his group isolated was a tiny one they called
vesicle associated membrane protein 1 (VAMP-
Later, they found the partners of VAMP-1, first
syntaxin and then SNAP-25, which they isolated in
rats in collaboration with James Rothman at Yale.
It turned out that VAMP-1 and its associated
proteins act like twist-ties, with their binding
providing the energy that drives membrane fusion.
VAMP-1 on synaptic vesicles and syntaxin and
SNAP-25 on the neuronal membrane stick out like
facing antennae. When they come in close contact,
they wrap around each other and force the two
membranes together, dumping neurotransmitters
into the nerve synapse. These proteins, now
classified in the SNARE (soluble NSF attachment
protein receptor) family, are essential for the release
of neurotransmitters. (A more detailed account
of Scheller’s discoveries is available on the Lasker
Foundation website.
After these discoveries and 19 years as a professor
at Stanford, Scheller joined the R&D team at
Genentech. “I wanted to do something different, and
I thought that biology… had come to an age where
we could think about disease in very mechanistic
terms and drug discovery work would be more like
basic science than it had been previously.” Genentech
was the perfect match, he says.
After 12 years, Scheller is now an Executive
Vice President of Genentech and remains pleased
with his career path. “It’s much more collaborative
here; everyone at Genentech has a single purpose.”
He particularly loves “unblinding clinical trials…
sometimes we find that people on our drug live longer
than people who weren’t. That’s a deeply moving
Despite his second career in industry, Scheller
maintains his appreciation for basic science research.
“I run R&D at Genentech now, but without NIH-
funded work, the translational work would be in
the dark ages…. I am and will always be a big fan
of academic basic discovery, and the funding of that
work by the NIH has been the engine that has fueled
pipelines of drug companies forever.”
One thing Scheller misses about academia is
working closely with students, fellows, and technicians
in the lab. “I run such a large group now that I’m a
little further removed from the discoveries than I was
when I had a lab at Stanford.”
Though Scheller’s work is far more translational
than when he worked in the cell biology department
at Stanford, he is still an active ASCB member and
has been since 1992. “I’m a biochemist and a cell
biologist, that’s who I am…. I still feel like I’m part of
the cell biology community in my heart and my soul.
— Christina Szalinski
Reference and Footnote
Trimble WS, Cowan DM, Scheller RH (1988). VAMP-1: A
synaptic vesicle-associated integral membrane protein.
Proc Natl
Acad Sci USA
85, 4538–4542.
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Thea Clarke
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