Pioneer in biotech research and drug development appointed to UCSF faculty

By Wallace Ravven

James Wells, PhD -----

James Wells, PhD, cofounder of the South San Francisco-based pharmaceutical company Sunesis and a pioneer in developing new drug discovery and protein engineering technologies, has been appointed professor in both the schools of pharmacy and medicine at UCSF and will also direct a new center to boost drug discovery at the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research, headquartered at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus.

Wells, elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1999, will serve as professor of pharmaceutical chemistry and as professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology. He will also hold the first Harry Wm. and Diana V. Hind Distinguished Professorship in Pharmaceutical Sciences at UCSF.

Wells has been chief scientific officer and president of Sunesis and was co-inventor there of a novel drug-discovery process called Tethering to efficiently screen thousands of molecules in search of the most potent compounds to block specific protein action. The technique has been adopted by several large pharmaceutical companies through collaborations with Sunesis.

His UCSF appointment is expected to further strengthen the university’s innovative Program in Chemistry and Chemical Biology, which develops and exploits chemical approaches to study, change and inhibit key biological processes in the cell, such as hormone and enzyme actions and signaling between molecules. These activities are considered prime targets for a new generation of drugs to treat maladies with greater precision and fewer side effects.

“Jim brings biotech business savvy and impeccable research credentials to UCSF,” said Mary Anne Koda-Kimble, PharmD, dean of the UCSF School of Pharmacy. “Our end goal is for people to benefit from our science, and Jim is very highly regarded for building bridges between basic academic research and real, clinical applications.”

“There was fierce competition among several top biomedical research universities to recruit Jim,” said Keith Yamamoto, PhD, executive vice dean in UCSF’s School of Medicine and former chair of the school’s cellular and molecular pharmacology department. “I am thrilled that he chose to join us. Jim will share with UCSF his creative and exciting research strategies, his ability to choose and solve high-impact problems, and his biotech perspective. His collaborative nature is a perfect fit for UCSF.”

Wells, who has been an adjunct professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at UCSF while at Sunesis, intends to focus his UCSF research on the basic science and technology of discovering small molecules as drug candidates, particularly for novel cancer therapeutics.

“I also look forward to mentoring students and post-docs and working with UCSF colleagues in this dynamic area where basic research insights can accelerate drug discovery.  There are also tremendous opportunities at the interface of the university and biotech community seeded in the new QB3 organization that I’m excited to take part in.”

Wells intends to remain closely affiliated with Sunesis.

The new Hind Distinguished Professorship in Pharmaceutical Sciences was established with a gift to the UCSF School of Pharmacy from Harry and Diana Hind. A School of Pharmacy alumnus, Harry Hind is the inventor of both the wetting solution that helped bring contact lenses into widespread use, and the Lidoderm patch, prescribed to treat nerve-injury pain from shingles.

“Both Jim and the Hinds share a passion for innovations that enhance health,” said Koda-Kimble. “What better place than UCSF for the Hinds and Jim to combine forces?”