PhD ’80, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering
Executive Vice President, Research and Early Development, Genentech
Sample of Achievements and Awards
- Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, 2013
- Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, 2010
- Member of the National Academy of Sciences, 2000
- Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1998
- National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology, 1997
- More than 250 publications
Richard Scheller remembers the book that inspired him to attend Caltech, The Structure and Action of Proteins by then–faculty member Richard Dickerson.
“I was quite taken with the book, which had these gorgeous illustrations by Irving Geis,” says Scheller. “Dickerson described structure and how it related to function with such clarity: I knew that I wanted to work with the person who wrote this book.”
After completing his undergraduate degree, he did just that. Joining Dickerson’s lab, Scheller collaborated with Arthur Riggs and Keiichi Itakura of the leading research hospital City of Hope to synthesize DNA and proteins in order to study their interactions. Their successful research attracted the attention of Herb Boyer and Bob Swanson, who were starting the company Genentech with the aim of turning bacteria into tiny factories to produce proteins and hormones like insulin, which could be administered to humans.
“Genentech was just the five of us working in labs at the City of Hope, University of California–San Francisco, and Caltech,” says Scheller, who acquired 15,000 shares of Genentech stock for $300. When the company went public in 1980, he made $1.1 million overnight but kept his position as a Caltech research fellow and his attention on basic research.
Scheller went on to become a professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University, where he conducted seminal research to identify the key elements governing neurotransmitter release.
That nerves conduct tiny electrical impulses had long been understood: When a person wants to move a muscle, an electrical impulse travels down the nerve to the end point. Making the jump from the nerve to the muscle is a bit more complicated. The nerve releases tiny chemical messengers—neurotransmitters—which, in turn, act on the muscle, causing a contraction. Neurotransmission happens at phenomenal speed, fast enough for you to yank your hand off a hot iron. Through his work, Scheller shed light on the molecular underpinnings of the process, for which he won the 2013 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.
“It’s easy to explain muscle as an example, but it’s much more than that,” Scheller says. “Neurotransmission is the basis of how we think, how we remember things, our consciousness, pretty much everything.”
After 20 years at Stanford, Scheller rejoined Genentech in 2001, which had grown to become the world’s largest supplier of cancer medicines, with $13 billion in U.S. revenue alone. Scheller is now the executive vice president for research and early development, responsible for overseeing research from initial discovery to proof of concept.
“It’s an extremely exciting time in medicine,” Scheller says. “To unblind a trial and see cancer patients who you were treating live longer because of your medicine is a pretty rewarding endeavor.”
Scheller remains as dedicated to basic science—and to Caltech—as ever. “The kind of work being done at Caltech is really the basis of the discoveries that translate into medicines of the future,” he says