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Drug Discovery Former Merck exec to head Texas medicine institute

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At a time in his life when many peers would have been focusing on scoring the best tee times, Thomas Caskey found himself plotting the next stage of his career. In 2000, Caskey was president of the Merck Genome Research Institute and two years away from the company's mandatory retirement age of 65. "I thought, ‘Well, I need to be moving on to a new situation,'" he recalls.

So Caskey headed back to Texas, where he had previously been chairman of the genetics department at Baylor, and started up a venture capital company. Cogene Biotech Ventures aims to invest in companies using genomic technologies in the drug discovery process. Meanwhile, Caskey also began serving on the scientific advisory board of the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine, or the IMM, at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

As Cogene became more established, Caskey was interested in taking on a new project that had more of a startup feeling. The answer came in the form of IMM, where UT Health Science Center President James Willerson persuaded Caskey to join as director and CEO.

IMM isn't new, but it is about to do some serious ramping up. Next month the institute, which has a goal of studying human diseases at the cellular and molecular level with protein and DNA technologies, will move out of its current space — some 25,000 square feet, estimates Caskey — into a new, 260,000-square-foot facility. The current staff of 15 PIs could be raised to as many as 150 in the new building, he says. The primary research groups include immunology, signal transduction, and genetics; initiatives are underway to add stem cells and neuroscience to the stable, Caskey says. His own particular interest lies in developing biologics for therapeutic use, a method he supported while at Merck.

Caskey is no stranger to starting up new programs. When he was recruited to Merck in 1994, "I came in with experience in genome science, and Merck was just beginning to start its program in the genome area," he says. He built up the genomics division into its own research institute, established collaborative relationships, and joined external endeavors like the EST program.

During his career, Caskey has also served as the president of the Human Genome Organization and the American Society of Human Genetics. — Meredith Salisbury

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