Wells to Chair UCSF Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry

James Wells

James A. Wells, PhD, an internationally recognized biochemist and leader in the development of new technologies for engineering proteins and for identifying small molecules to aid in drug discovery, has been named chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry in the UCSF School of Pharmacy. His appointment is effective July 1, 2008. Wells, a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, joined UCSF in 2005 as the first holder of the Harry Wm. and Diana V. Hind Distinguished Professorship in Pharmaceutical Sciences. He is a professor in his home Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry and holds a joint appointment as professor in the UCSF School of Medicine's Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology. At UCSF, Wells' research group focuses on the discovery and design of small molecules that trigger or modulate cellular processes in inflammation and cancer. Using small molecules and engineered proteins, the Wells lab is studying how enzymes known as proteases are turned on to cleave particular proteins in cells. The lab is focusing on one set of proteases, known as caspases, that kill virally infected or precancerous cells. These enzymes act as demolition experts and help us understand the essential protein struts that support life. Wells' research spans the multiple disciplines of biophysics, cell biology, molecular biology, biochemistry and chemistry. Wells also directs the Small Molecule Discovery Center (SMDC), which he founded. The SMDC is located at UCSF's Mission Bay campus in the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), where Wells is a faculty affiliate. Center activities focus on helping UCSF and QB3 researchers identify small molecules that modulate biochemical or cellular processes and have the potential to alter disease states. The ultimate goal of SMDC research is to help pave the way for the development of new small molecule therapeutics. Before joining UCSF, Wells was a founding scientist in Genentech's Protein Engineering Department. He then founded Sunesis Pharmaceuticals, where he served as president and chief scientific officer and co-invented a novel drug discovery process, called Tethering, to efficiently screen molecules in search of the most potent compounds to block specific protein action. "Jim's appointment is terrific and timely," says Mary Anne Koda-Kimble, PharmD, dean of the UCSF School of Pharmacy. "Today's approach to drug discovery is cumbersome, complex and produces few effective new drugs. We need new approaches and new technologies that arise from basic research, and industry is giving up more and more of this research to academic centers. Jim comes from industry and understands this well. "Moreover, future advances in drug discovery and development will clearly require that we work in new ways today. Jim believes in science without borders. It's a work ethic shared by the department and the school as a whole." says Koda-Kimble. The Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry is known widely for its expertise - from chemical biology to computational chemistry and biology, and from proteomics to protein engineering. Department faculty pioneered the use of computers to guide drug design. They discovered how proteins adopt their structures and fold, how proteases control many diseases and why some promising drug candidates can be ruled out early in the drug discovery process. They continue to develop and apply technologies to access the architecture of molecules involved in disease. "It is my privilege to be appointed the next chair to lead this accomplished department and to work together with scientists and clinicians in our school's sister departments," says Wells. Together with department faculty, Wells will help ensure that the school's science goals are met. "We are well positioned to expand our science of drug discovery and synthetic biology in collaboration with our science colleagues on campus and beyond. We plan to understand more deeply the fundamental chemistry that underlies health and disease. And we'll create needed new research tools and technologies to find better ways to discover and develop drugs. This scientific vision was developed under the school's two science department chairs and supported by our whole school faculty," explains Wells. "I was involved in developing it, and look forward to completing what we have challenged ourselves to do." Wells will succeed Thomas L. James, PhD, who has served as department chair since 1995. "In welcoming Jim, I thank Tom for his perseverance, steadfast University citizenship and tireless dedication to ensuring that our science has the physical space, new faculty talent and graduate programs required to flourish," says Koda-Kimble. "The department is in a position of strength and continued and expanding accomplishment. Tom's leadership has been exceptional and his citizenship beyond compare. I am sure Tom will enjoy the newfound time for his research." "It is great for the department, the school and UCSF that Jim has agreed to become chair," says James. "I'm confident that his energy, stature and thoughtfulness will serve us all well as we commence redefining the department in the context of several anticipated faculty retirements with consequent new faculty hiring." In addition to his membership in the National Academy of Sciences, Wells is a recipient of many honors, including the Hans Neurath Award by the Protein Society, the Pfizer Award given by the American Chemical Society, the du Vigneaud Award given by the American Peptide Society and the 2006 Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award. He earned a PhD degree in biochemistry from Washington State University and completed postdoctoral work at Stanford University School of Medicine. Related Links: School of Pharmacy