John Baxter Remembered as Pioneer of Biotechnology and Translational Medicine

John Baxter, MD, a UCSF faculty member for more than 35 years, was known as a pioneer of biotechnology and a leader in taking discoveries from the halls of academia to form companies aimed at developing medical therapies. He died in San Francisco on Oct. 5 following surgery for cancer.

John Baxter, MD

John Baxter, MD

Baxter and colleagues at UCSF were the first to clone the key genes involved in the production of human and bovine growth hormone. Genentech Inc. went on to develop a synthetic form of human growth hormone as a drug used by children and adults with hormone-related growth deficiency. The cloning of the cow gene allowed Monsanto Co. to develop synthetic bovine growth hormone, used around the world to boost milk production.

Between them, the patents on the two types of growth hormone provided the university with well over $350 million in revenue from Monsanto and Genentech.  

Baxter and two other UCSF scientists — Herb Boyer, PhD, and William Rutter, PhD, — were among the founding fathers of biotechnology and made UCSF a major pillar of this new industry. Boyer was a co-founder of Genentech and Rutter founded Chiron Inc. Baxter founded California Biotechnology Inc. in 1982.

“The three of them were on the cutting edge of developing modern biotechnology,’’ said David Gardner, MD, a former fellow of Baxter’s who began working in his lab 32 years ago and is now chief of UCSF’s Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism. “Boyer was the first to figure out how to splice gene products together. John and Bill took advantage of that technology to move in a more translational direction, focusing on the generation of products that could be used clinically.’’

A native of Kentucky, Baxter went to the University of Kentucky on a track scholarship. A champion in long distance running, he remained a lifelong Kentucky Wildcats fan who always claimed he “bled blue.” Baxter went on to Yale Medical School and then landed a fellowship in the lab of Gordon Tomkins, PhD, a hormone research pioneer at the National Institutes of Health.

When Tomkins was recruited by Rutter to UCSF in 1969, Baxter came with him, setting up his own lab that studied the workings of hormones. In addition to cloning the key hormone genes, his group was among the first to use bacteria as a medium in which synthetic hormones could be efficiently produced in quantity.

A Biotechnology Pioneer

A few years after the founding of Genentech in 1976, executives from the brokerage firm E.F. Hutton asked Baxter to start a biotech company with their backing. Baxter agreed and launched California Biotechnology Inc., in 1982. Scientists from the company, better known as Cal Bio, developed a drug for heart failure called Natrecor that eventually reached the market. Baxter also helped start a Swedish biotech company, Karo-Bio, A.B. in 1987, which continues to work on developing drugs for treating obesity, cholesterol disorders and diabetes. In 1991, he helped found SciClone Pharmaceuticals Inc., which has at least two drugs in clinical trials.

“At a time when most people in the UCSF Department of Biochemistry were interested in this exploding new science called recombinant DNA, John instantly saw both the medical potential and the commercial potential,’’ said Walter Miller, MD, another scientist who got his start in Baxter’s lab. Miller is now a professor of Pediatrics and chief of Pediatric Endocrinology at UCSF.

“John started his company but remained 100 percent active on faculty,’’ Miller said.

In 1995, a group led by Baxter uncovered the structure of the receptor bound to the thyroid hormone, allowing the design of new drugs based on structural blueprints. These drugs, known as selective thyroid receptor modulators, are now being tested in clinical trials for treating atherosclerosis, obesity, diabetes and fatty liver.

Baxter was an inspirational leader who knew how to attract talented people to his lab, give them challenges and then allow them to find their way to answers, said Frances Denoto-Reynolds, who worked with Baxter for 30 years as a technician and lab manager.

“He liked to sit around and talk about ideas and experiments but he didn’t tell you how to do them,’’ Denoto-Reynolds recalled. “He trusted and empowered people to find their way.”

The thrill of the chase attracted Baxter as well. Hanging in his office was a fiberglass replica of a six-foot long tarpon, a large, deepwater fish he’d caught on one of his many fishing trips, Denoto-Reynolds recalled. He weighed and photographed it before releasing it back into the ocean.

Baxter left UCSF to become director of the Genomic Medicine Program at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute in Houston in 2008. He was a past president of the Endocrine Society, the recipient of dozens of major awards and honors, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine.

Baxter is survived by his wife the Hon. Lee D. Baxter, San Francisco Superior Court (ret.), daughters Gillian Galligan and Leslie Baxter, son-in-law Oliver Galligan, and grandson Connor. The family is planning a celebration of Baxter’s life in the near future and will inform the UCSF community.