McKerrow's Parasitic Disease Research Garners Mendel Medal

By Jeff Norris

James McKerrow

James McKerrow

James McKerrow, PhD, a UCSF expert on parasites that afflict the poorest populations on Earth, recently visited a better-off land — the Czech Republic.

He didn’t jump the pond to reprise his stateside science lecture on “Things that Go Bump in the Night.” And his purpose was not to check out the famous pea garden that led to the discovery of basic rules governing the inheritance of biological traits.

Nor did he go to sing Dylan tunes in a Czech colleague’s rock band.

McKerrow did all those things, but he really made the trip to pick up the most prestigious prize awarded by the Czech Academy of Sciences for biological research. Jiri Drahos, the president of the Czech Academy of Sciences, presented the 2009 Mendel Medal to McKerrow at an April dinner in Prague attended by senior scientific advisors from throughout the European Union.

McKerrow, Robert E. Smith professor of experimental pathology and the leader of the Sandler Center for Drug Discovery at UCSF, was honored for his work identifying the vulnerabilities of disease-causing parasites and for devising new strategies to fight them.

The award is named after Gregor Mendel, a 19th century monk whose work established the most fundamental principals of genetics. Mendel was never recognized for this accomplishment during his lifetime. He studied pea plants at a monestary in Brno, conducting experiments through which he discovered rules for the inheritance of simple, genetically determined traits.

Previous recipients of the Mendel Medal include renowned scientists and Nobel prizewinners such as J. Michael Bishop, MD, chancellor emeritus of UCSF, and Thomas Cech, PhD, former head of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Drug Development at UCSF

McKerrow was recognized for a quarter-century of work on parasites. One of the research projects that McKerrow now directs is expected to lead to an application to the US Food and Drug Administration for an Investigational New Drug (IND) to treat Chagas disease—a chronic and debilitating illness afflicting about 10 million people from rural Latin America.

Approval for the IND is the step that precedes the first round of clinical trials in humans. The development of this innovative therapy is being driven by UCSF faculty and staff, not by a pharmaceutical company.

Common diseases caused by parasites – such as malaria, African sleeping sickness, river blindness, Chagas disease, roundworm, hookworm, elephantiasis, schistosomiasis and leishmaniasis – hit the poorest countries hardest. Major pharmaceutical firms rarely see a way to profit from developing new treatments for these debilitating and often deadly diseases.

McKerrow engaged government agencies, philanthropic organizations, smaller drug companies and fellow academic scientists to help create collaborations that will enable the next stages of formulating and testing the drug. The drug targets a structure within a protein called cruzain. The parasite depends on cruzain, but there is no protein counterpart in humans.

Research on parasites has been a major strength of UCSF researchers from the schools of pharmacy and medicine since the 1980s. After McKerrow came to UCSF as a postdoctoral fellow, he soon was drawn into this research field, inspired in large part of pioneering School of Pharmacy parasite researcher C.C. Wang, PhD. During the 1990s McKerrow and UCSF colleagues received funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Institutes of Health to foster a research consortium focused on parasitic diseases.

From this nexus the Sandler Center for Basic Research in Parasitic Diseases was established in 2002 with funding from the Sandler Foundation. The center was renamed the Sandler Center for Drug Discovery earlier this year.

This support enabled the researchers to greatly expand infrastructure for medicinal chemistry, computational biology, structure-based drug design, and high throughput screening of small molecules to identify potential drug candidates. The Sandler Center now includes more than 100 scientists and staff members.

During his visit to the Czech Republic, McKerrow enjoyed a visit to the Mendel Museum of Genetics in Brno. The museum is in the old abbey surrounded by a modern incarnation of Mendel’s pea garden. In addition to the Mendel Medal, McKerrow discovered something else that connects him to the posthumously famous father of genetics.

“Through his scientific publications he actually contributed more to meteorology than to genetics,” McKerrow says. “I’m really interested in weather as a hobby, so that was really cool to see.”

Related Links:

Sandler Center for Drug Discovery

James McKerrow Lab at UCSF

California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3)

“Things that Go Bump in the Night,” UCSF Mini Medical School Lecture, December 5, 2006