Salk Institute continues its mission


Salk seeks answers to life’s questions

The Salk Institution For Biological Studies’ goal of exploring questions about the basic principles of life continues after a half century of groundbreaking research.

Salk scientist Inder M. Verma, one of the world’s leading authorities on the development of viruses for gene therapy, likes to tell a story about polio vaccine developer Jonas Salk that defines the ongoing mission of the institute Salk started.

“An older gentleman came to see Jonas and met him in the courtyard,” said Verma. “He introduced his 11-year-old grandson and said to him, ‘ This is Dr. Jonas Salk. He killed polio.’ And his grandson said, ‘What is polio?’ And Jonas said, ‘This was the best day of my life — they don’t even know what polio is now.’ ”

Pursuing the mission

Little has changed about Salk’s mission during its 50 years, said Verma, who’s been there 36. “The idea was Salk has to be a unique place where scientists with imagination and great spirit of innovation can come and work essentially unhindered for curiosity-driven research,” he said.

In defining curiosity-driven, Verma posed several questions: How does a cell grow? Why does a person become diabetic? Why do we age? How do we sleep? How does the brain process information?

“This is philosophy-driven research that can have important implications,” he concluded.

His Salk colleague, Fred H. “Rusty” Gage, acknowledged that the institute’s mission is somewhat simpler than most other biotech firms on Torrey Pines Mesa.

It’s about ‘basic science’

“We’re a basic science institute trying to understand the fundamental principles that underlie life, “ he said, adding that such understanding enables development of strategies for “repairing life forms, human diseases in particular, when they go awry.”

To understand the disease process, scientists need to first understand how the human body functions normally, said Gage, noting that Salk encourages its scientists “to be adventurous.”

Gage believes pioneering, grass-roots biological research being done at Salk will lead to breakthroughs in the understanding of the human organism that will allow people to not only live longer but better.

Toward ‘a healthier life’

“Twenty years from now, diseases that kill people will be things people will live with like AIDS,” he said. ‘Technology, medicines and devices, together with the dissemination of how the brain works and the body functions ... will result in not so much an extended life but a healthier life right up to the time that we go away.”

Established in 1960 with seed money from the March of Dimes and land gifted by the city of San Diego, Salk hired world-renowned architect Louis Kahn to design its iconic oceanside laboratory space. Major areas of study include molecular biology and genetics, neurosciences, plant biology and infectious disease.

Though not a degree-granting institution, Salk has trained more than 2,300 scientists. Five Nobel Prize winners have been associated with the institution, whose 60-member faculty published 400 scientific articles last year. With a $103 million annual budget, Salk spends 80 percent of it on research and support. The institute has 450 U.S. patents covering technology discovered in its labs.

‘Little giant’

Dr. Drew Senyei, managing partner of Enterprise Partners Venture Capital, which has invested in more than 150 companies across a broad spectrum of technologies and the life sciences representing more than $1.1 billion, characterized Salk as a “little giant.”

“It’s a very high-quality, small research institute that has been a leader in finding the basic causes, the mechanisms of disease, for a long time beginning with polio,” he said. “Its size is greatly exceeded by its contributions.”

Senyei said Salk’s focus on the basic mechanisms at the molecular level of disease is very important. “That’s where they say the cure begins,” he said.

Harry F. Hixson Jr., chairman of the board of Sequenom, a developer of diagnostic tests including DNA analysis, noted Salk is on “the leading edge” of biological science in the world today.

“It’s hard to describe them because they’re so world-renowned,” he said. “There’s continuous (scientific) breakthroughs there, and there will continue to be. They’re a basic research organization, and much of their work has led other researchers and other biotech companies to bring forth therapies and potential products for human health. They certainly set the high standard that everyone else tries to beat.”

Salk by the numbers

  • Nobel Prize winners associated as faculty members or trainees: 5
  • Scientific articles published last year by the institute’s 60-member faculty: 400
  • San Diego middle and high school students who each year learn basics of

science from the Salk Mobile Science Van’s visits to campuses or at the
annual Salk High School Science Day: 3,000

  • Biotech companies inspired by Salk Institute discoveries: 31
  • Number of U.S. patents covering technology discovered in Salk labs: 450
  • Annual economic impact on the San Diego community (as determined by EDC in 2005): $199 million
  • Total faculty: 60
  • Research staff: 850
  • Graduate students (in partnership with UCSD): 100
  • Postdoctoral students: 300
  • Number of countries represented by Salk faculty, staff, and students: 54
  • Total FY budget: $103 million
  • Percentage of budget from NIH and other federal agencies: 59 percent
  • Percentage of budget spent on research and support: 80 percent
  • Percentage of budget spent on administrative operations: 20 percent