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Moving to Drug Discovery, SGX Lures Ian McDonald from SBI, Cuts Staff

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When Stephen Burley joined Structural Genomix as chief scientific officer last January, it came as a surprise to many that he would leave Rockefeller University to join a startup engaged in drug discovery. After all, as director of the New York Structural Genomics Research Consortium, Burley was responsible for picking out families of proteins to crystallize and characterize that weren’t supposed to overlap with the proteins prioritized by industry. Was it possible for a career academic to shift easily into the realm of drug discovery?

Although Burley still has a hand in the publicly-funded consortium, in recent weeks he has also taken steps to show that his management skills transcend those required in academia. Since taking over as CSO, Burley has revamped SGX to bring the company in line with drug discovery, he said, and last week ProteoMonitor learned the outcome of these deliberations: about 20 percent of SGX’s employees have been let go, and Burley has recruited Ian McDonald, formerly head of drug discovery for Structural Bioinformatics, to join SGX as vice president for drug discovery.

“My objective in recruiting Ian McDonald as VP for drug discovery was to take advantage of his considerable experience in getting small molecules from lead to IND,” Burley said. McDonald started working at SGX June 21.

In other personnel news, Linda Grais, executive vice president and co-founder of SGX, has decided to leave to work with another early-stage venture after taking the summer off, Burley said.

The restructuring coincides with a shift in business strategy at four year-old SGX from identifying protein targets to finding potential lead compounds against the targets the company has uncovered thus far. The employees let go were primarily bioinformaticists involved in genome sequence-based analysis, an effort aimed at identifying potential protein targets for crystallization and structure determination, Burley said.

“It would be fair to say we have many more targets than we can handle,” Burley added. “We have so many on deck that I couldn’t justify maintaining considerable strength in bioinformatics when I needed the resources to recruit computational chemists and chemists.”

Burley said that SGX still retains “some very high quality people” in [bioinformatics], but that these researchers are primarily involved in computational chemistry. “It was a question of refocusing resources,” he said.

The departure of the employees involved in sequence-based analysis will leave SGX with more money to hire chemists. Burley said he has already begun adding to the current team of eight bench chemists at the company, and will work with McDonald and SGX’s vice president for computational chemistry, to choose additional computational, synthetic organic, and medicinal chemists.

SGX’s target priorities are currently in the area of human protein kinases, both serine threonine and tyrosine kinases, Burley said. The company’s current structure determination efforts are focused on co-crystallizing these target proteins with small molecule inhibitors, but SGX needs more chemists to bolster its supply of small molecule leads.

— JSM

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