Scientists at the University of Texas at El Paso are developing novel treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and for cancer.
They are developing technologies that could revolutionize how disease is treated or that may one day grow entire organs from patients’ own cells.
One of those scientists, Robert Kirken, has been named dean of the College of Science, and he has a big vision for the school.
Kirken imagines research spawning startup biotech companies and those startups laying the groundwork for a biotech sector in El Paso, which would provide jobs for graduates, keeping their talent and ideas in El Paso.
Kirken, 48, likes to say he grew up in “a small little town you’ve never heard of before.”
In Ortonville, Mich., there were no traffic lights and no McDonald’s, but he says it was a great place to grow up. Kirken played lots of sports and learned to work hard, doing odd jobs with his dad.
“My parents would always say the way out and up was an education,” he says.
Kirken says he knew he wanted to be a scientist as early as second grade when he saw a drawing of a scientist holding a flask. And he has grown up to be exactly that.
“My folks always encouraged me and cultivated that interest in me,” he says.
As a child, Kirken’s birthday presents and Christmas presents always included some sort of chemistry kit, biology dissection kit or science book, he says.
Now Kirken has published nearly 80 scientific works, secured patents and generated more than $20 million in funded research support. He has also served as program director of UTEP’s $13-million National Institutes of Health-sponsored Border Biomedical Research Center. The center focuses on border health issues and health disparities in the region.
Like many of the students he teaches at UTEP, Kirken was the first in his family to go to college. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and finally a doctorate in biomedical science from Wright State University in Ohio.
Kirken worked as a staff scientist for the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, and, in 1998, he joined the faculty of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston where he became a tenured professor.
It was an exciting time to work in science center’s Department of Integrative Biology. The year Kirken joined the faculty, the department chair, Ferid Murad, won the Nobel Prize in medicine.
Most recently, Kirken served as chair and professor of the biological sciences department at UTEP, researching immune-derived diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma and the rejection of transplanted organs. In March, he was named dean of the College of Science.
Nearly 2,700 students are enrolled in the college’s 30 degree programs, including four doctoral degrees.
Kirken and his wife, Federica Pericle, have two children. Pericle, a Ph.D., is an immunologist from Italy.
When he’s not in the lab, Kirken, who is tall and fit, plays a number of sports with his wife, including volleyball and basketball.
“We are both pretty much sports fanatics,” he says.
Kirken sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about his vision for the college, some potentially revolutionary research and why it can be so hard to bring that research to market.
Q: Why did you come to UTEP in 2005, leaving a tenured position at the UT Health Science Center at Houston?
Dr. Diana Natalicio is very inspiring and told me about all the great opportunities that are here and how I could come and really make an impact on the students, on the science, on the faculty and on the community. The chance to be chair of a department and lead a program is an exciting opportunity.
Q: What is your vision for UTEP’s College of Science?
The most important thing is to build an incredible environment where undergraduate and graduate students can learn how to do fantastic science, using the greatest technologies. We have some incredible programs, and UTEP offers this experience to work in some really high-tech labs.
At other institutions, you have to wait until you’re a post-doc or maybe a senior graduate student to work in the facilities our students work in here.
That’s a huge first component. The second component is moving to tier one. We know it takes a lot of grant money, we know we need $100 million in research expenditures and we know we are moving toward 200 Ph.D. graduates per year.
The College of Science can play a huge role in that. We have a number of Ph.D. programs in the college. We need to not only build those and support those, but we also need to add new programs where we think there is going to be growth in the U.S. workforce.
But the third key point is to create intellectual property and be able to translate that into the marketplace.
Q: How does UTEP compare with other UT institutions in bringing research to market?
I don’t have the numbers off the top of my head. We have huge potential, but we haven’t taken advantage of it like we can.
We have phenomenal infrastructure here at UTEP, especially in the College of Science. We have to take it to that next level – beyond the education component, beyond research for the sake of knowledge, which is fantastic and I am very supportive of, but how can we spin off this technology into the community?
Part of what we are trying to do is create these spinoff startup businesses so students have a place to go. We are fairly isolated here in El Paso, and we have students who are being trained in these labs, want to stay in El Paso, but don’t have the opportunities to really work in a high-tech force. So they leave. What you hope is you could create a critical mass and then other biotech companies would begin to come to El Paso.
Q: Is the university doing enough to help researchers bring their research to market?
Yeah, I think so. It’s about promoting yourself – about trying to find those angel investors, trying to bring in significant dollars. We’re not talking about a few thousand dollars here and there, we’re talking millions.
Q: From an outsider’s perspective, it doesn’t seem like there have been many successes so far.
The role of the university is to create that infrastructure where you can make discoveries, you can license those discoveries and create a spin-off company. But the institution’s role becomes really limited at that point and investors have to step up.
It is a huge challenge. You can’t really say, “Oh, if we just did more of this or more of that, we would have the next Merck sitting right here on the border.” It’s about being very smart and utilizing what we have here on the border.
Q: When do you think UTEP might have its first biotech spinoff? There are some promising startup businesses like TeVido Biodevices, that is seeking $40 million to produce breast implants for cancer patients, grown from the patients’ own cells.
There are several already that are here, but I think the key is: When do we get to the point where we’re manufacturing something, we’re showing a profit and we’re adding lots of new employees? Again, it’s about being strategic. What can we build here that is going to be unique – that is going to want to make people invest in the region? It’s those things we are focusing on.
Q: What is an example?
One of the companies I’m working with is Premier Biomedical Inc. They’re developing technology to remove pathological agents from the blood or spinal fluid, while leaving the good molecules.
If you could remove certain molecules that cancer cells need to live, for example, the cancer could potentially die. Can we very selectively capture those molecules in cerebral spinal fluid that may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease?
Q: A couple years ago there was a lot of buzz surrounding SeneXta, which was called UTEP’s first biotech spinoff. UTEP researchers, including your wife, were hoping to bring a novel Alzheimer’s drug to market. What has happened to that project?
Well, SeneXta has been turned back over to the original investor in Switzerland, but there is another company called BrainTools that is looking at licensing opportunities.
Basically, SeneXta ran a successful Phase 1 clinical trial in Germany, which was a huge accomplishment for a UTEP technology. After that, you’re looking at a Phase 2 clinical trial, which is really where it stands now.
If you look at a lot of the clinical trials going on for various Alzheimer’s drugs, it’s been very disappointing. They have not fared well. So people are somewhat skeptical in investing in another drug.
Remember there are many things going wrong in your brain with Alzheimer’s; that’s what makes treating it very complicated.
Q: UTEP’s effort to be a tier-one national research university is bringing in a lot of funding, staff and faculty and even raising new buildings. Is there competition amongst the various UTEP colleges for attention?
You have to work together. Answering the questions of today, which are extraordinarily complex, requires multidisciplinary approaches. No longer can you be the lone biologist working on a project.
It takes biologists, it takes chemists, it takes engineers and it takes business people to bring it all together. The trap would be if you think you can just do it all by yourself.
Q: It’s notable that the dean of the College of Engineering, Richard Schoephoerster, is a biomedical engineer.
The provost’s office is making faculty hires that are bridging the traditional silos. Those individuals can help bridge colleges, programs and departments.
At the same time, the colleges need to reward that. So if you are a researcher who has a great project in science and you are also leveraging, say, something with nursing in the community, it should be reflected in your annual review. Perhaps, for example, you could count multidisciplinary approaches toward the tenure promotion process.
Q: What is a good example of how the College of Science might work with, say, UTEP’s colleges of Engineering and Business?
Let’s say you’re trying to use someone’s own cells to grow a skin graft, or even to create an organ, something TeVido BioDevices is working on. Let’s say you’ve just generated an organ in the lab, which would be the Holy Grail. What are you going to do next?
Most likely, you would come over to biology and try to set up a transplant model and then you can go over to business to spin that technology off and look for investors.
Q: What Ph.D. programs would you like to launch next?
We have several Ph.D. programs in the pipeline. Biostatistics, for example, is being considered.
Q: I know you are a biologist, but what do you hope to do for other departments like chemistry and physics?
In the end, again, we want to create a top-notch, research intensive, college – to create an environment where we can recruit, retain and develop outstanding faculty.
It’s about creating opportunities for students so they can learn cutting-edge technologies then can go on to graduate school or medical school or a particular company. We have all these new buildings, we have some incredible technology housed here and we are developing intellectual property at a good pace.
Q: You are on a panel of speakers for El Paso’s first State of the Life Sciences Address, which starts in a few hours. What is the state of the life sciences in El Paso?
UTEP, New Mexico State, the Paul Foster School of Medicine, we have seen tremendous growth in the region over the past five years. Just look at all the new buildings, all the new laboratories. I hardly recognize UTEP myself, and I’ve been here since 2005.
We have a situation here in the region where so many schools are developing and making new faculty hires and acquiring millions of dollars of instruments to do incredible work on border health.
The next big push is really to work more collaboratively together to try to reduce redundancy – not to try to replicate everybody’s core labs and core technologies but think how we can work together. This is something that is coming more to the forefront than ever before.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.