Can Mollusks Teach Us How to Make Automobiles? New QB3 Chief Wants to Find Out

By Christopher Vaughan on March 15, 2005

Regis Kelly (Photo by Karen Preuss)

(Part two of the Reg Kelly interview) Regis "Reg" Kelly, executive director of the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research, known as QB3, welcomed the first wave of UCSF scientists into their new laboratory and office spaces at Mission Bay in early March. Former executive vice chancellor and distinguished neuroscientist, Kelly has long been known for his enthusiastic belief in the power of basic research to ultimately improve and transform human health. QB3 is a test of that belief, one of many topics Kelly discussed in a recent interview. Part two of the interview follows. (Part one) Is there any worry that QB3 is spreading the scientists too thin? That is not really an issue for us. QB3 has about 120 different research labs on three different campuses. All the leadership can do is bring them together into novel organizational groupings, since we have few funds to offer as incentives. At the moment we can neither add any science nor take any away. All we can do is to take ongoing research programs and try to innovate by bringing programs together that didn't work together before. If you think about it QB3 is an organization that can be looked at in the same way we look at systems biology. Instead of thinking of 120 different lab components, we look for emerging properties of QB3 by linking and connecting all the various labs in different ways. How do you personally encourage innovation? My colleague Doug Crawford and I spend most our time interviewing investigators, working our way through the 120 who are part of QB3. We talk about their work and where they are going in their research. We try to suggest other technologies and ideas that they might not know about. About half the time they already know about them because they are smart, and about half the time we tell them about something they hadn't heard before. What we are trying to do is bring the researchers together and see if we can actually get something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Do you see yourself as bees pollinating ideas among different groups of researchers? Yes. It's actually a very cost-effective way of doing things because we are not actually asking for anything new to be built. We are just saying, there's tremendous information out here in each little silo of each research lab, and there's tremendous value to be added in being able to connect that information within QB3, between QB3 and the outside world, and between the QB3 basic and clinical scientists. What has been the biggest surprise of these encounters? What has been surprising to many of us has been how inefficient the information transfers have been from basic sciences to the clinical science. It almost seems as if the most effective way of getting such information is meeting a colleague on the flight to or from Washington. Many partnerships seem to have come from those flights across the country. Our raison d'etre is to do something about the barriers to information transfer from basic to clinical and from clinical back to basic. How does the research potential of UCSF compare with that 20 or 30 years ago? The environment is different than it was 30 years ago. When I started here, UCSF was a second-rank institution scientifically. Initially, the question was how could we get into the top ranks. As we reached the top ranks, the pressures changed. Then it became, how can you stay in the top ranks? How can you avoid complacency when you get really good? One of our big troubles before was the limited space at Parnassus, which really did constrain us. Now (with the Mission Bay expansion) there is the potential to dream dreams we couldn't have before, or couldn't do anything about. We were so long compressed in this tiny space without the ability to think big thoughts that perhaps our capacity to think those thoughts might have atrophied a little. Now we are having a change in culture, where we can think big things and do big things. We are back more like we were 30 years ago, back in a terrific growth phase. How effective is a three-way relationship? It's a good question, but you might also ask how UCSF can survive as it does with four or five campuses. The answer to that is that we seem to have done rather well. The truth is that Mission Bay is about as close to Berkeley as it is to the VA Hospital (where UCSF clinicians and researchers reside), and in fact it's faster for me to get to Berkeley than it is to get to the VA. As in any administrative structure, its value comes in what it does for people. Guaranteed, in five years, QB3 will be gone unless it adds value to the science of its members. What sort of value can it add? One is the provision of core facilities. Today's science is driven by hugely expensive technologies. No lab can afford them. No department can afford them. Sometimes no individual institution can afford them. So to the extent that we can bring the resources of these three institutions together and provide platform facilities that all three campuses can use for research, that will provide value. That value, in turn, will give us a reason to exist. One model for us is the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (particle accelerator) beamline. Because we have a beamline we can do X-ray crystallography studies and solve the structure of a protein in as little as 11 minutes! You could never justify the existence of that facility if you were only for Berkeley scientists. To create such a facility, a consortium of people had to pool resources. Another example of this is the Bay Area Screening Consortium, which is a facility that lets researchers and clinicians screen hundreds of thousands of molecules robotically to find those with specific properties they want. What do you see as the most exciting potential discoveries? For us, the most exciting discoveries are those that might do good for society. We have been asking ourselves in QB3 what are the immediate biologically based challenges in society. The one that comes up most often is that the drug production pipeline is not good right now. It's too long, too expensive and produces too many failures. The cost problem is exceedingly evident when you look at Third World countries. You can't travel around those countries without seeing that people are dying for want of drugs that are available but are too expensive. So a dream for QB3 is to find new technologies that allow drugs to be developed at a much lower cost. Another dream is to develop biologically based engineering. None of us in the present stage of our evolution can help but worry about what we are going to do when our planet runs out of fossil fuels and other limited resources. What we are going to be left with is biology. We will still have sunlight. We will still have carbon, so we can still have a carbon-based economy powered on sunlight. That's forever. So if we want to think about our future we have got to think about creating an engineering that is largely based on exclusively biological materials. One of the challenges for QB3 is to think beyond the biotechnology of the present moment, which is of course focused on medicine and agriculture, to a future where for example, we have learned how mollusks make their shells so beautifully and use that knowledge to build out automobiles! Among the three campus in QB3, has one taken the lead? UCSF is the lead campus, and Mike Bishop is the lead chancellor right now. However, if you want any sort of collegial spirit among the three campuses, you can't have one campus perpetually be dominant. So we are moving towards a more equal partnership, perhaps with a rotating leadership, perhaps a central administrative group that rotates among the three campuses. What is your leadership style? How will you go about inspiring all these scientists? You should probably ask someone who works for me rather than ask me. It's funny, I don't think about my leadership style much; I just go do it. After 30 years at UCSF, one of the things I feel very strongly about is that leadership has got to be collegial. I hope that lead people by building a consensus, and by that I don't mean setting up a large committee and asking people what they want to do. That rarely works. On anything important I screen my decisions with the important stakeholders and get their input. Large committees are very useful to screen decisions to catch unexpected consequences but they are not where I go for creativity. Is it fair to say then that you are similar to Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), for instance, where you have a group of researchers and you supply a facility instead of individual grants? We are exactly like a Howard Hughes Medical Institution without any money. We have very little, about 1.2 million dollars per year, which is just $400,000 per campus. The 100 million dollars we were awarded by the state was only for capital expenses; it is almost all spent on buildings. The original plan was that the state was also going to provide operating expenses but, of course, what's happened in the last three to five years is that the California economy has gone into the doldrums. I had more money to operate the department of biochemistry than I have to run QB3. So what are you left with? All we have is what is really in our heads - our ability to think creatively about exciting ways that investigators in QB3 can interact with each other and the outside world. If I can't do that I will be a failure. Source: Christopher Vaughan

Related Links

QB3 Chief Sees Science Dividends for State Taxpayers (Part one) The Rise of Systems Biology (from UCSF Magazine)