Biophysicist in Profile
All work and no play make Kambiz Shekdar, co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Chromocell Corporation, a drug discovery company whose focus ranges from pain relief and anxiety treatment to fl avor discovery, anything but dull. “I am always working!” he says, but to Shekdar, his type of work is what he calls fun.
As a high school senior, Shekdar’s once math-exclusive perspective began to broaden after taking a Princeton University calculus course taught by a professor whose English was conversational at best. A burgeoning interest in biology heightened that same year during a biology course at Princeton with a phenomenal instructor. The two courses juxtaposed, biology came out ahead—so far ahead that Shekdar decided to get cracking in a lab on the spot. “I walked around in Princeton’s main biological research building and asked the fi rst person I ran into if she knew of any labs where I might be able to work, especially on the topic of regeneration, which interested me at the time,” he recalls. “Turned out she was a professor and right away she walked me to a colleague’s lab where a postdoc who had studied regeneration took me in and created a project for me.” The willingness with which his ambition was accommodated was followed by a genuine interest in Shekdar’s progress and success in the lab as part of the team. “I was hooked,” he says. “When someone is excited about what they do, anything is infectious. I was so fortunate to have had mentors who loved what they did and who took the time to mentor and train me.”
From high school, Shekdar went on to complete his undergraduate degree at Rutgers University, and attended Rockefeller University for his graduate work. Th ere, he met Gunter Blobel, the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor and Nobel laureate, who became another infl uential mentor for Shekdar. It was with Blobel’s encouragement that Shekdar discovered the allure of cell biology, the fi eld that has become his main interest. “Gunter Blobel’s thinking and ideas, which seeped in through countless exciting discussions, got me started in this area,” Shekdar says. “We would discuss all sorts of things, especially what experiments to do and all the ups and downs that come from analyzing results.”
In 2003, those discussions culminated in the Chromocell Corporation’s inception. Shekdar and Blobel created the company as a medium to lend their newly patented Chromovert® technology to real-world applications across areas such as therapeutics, pain relief, and fl avor discovery, as well as to stem cells, cell therapy, and related research. The company originated “very organically and opportunistically,” says Shekdar. “We came up with an idea that could automate genetic engineering and speed production of multigene stable cell lines.” At first, the concept was merely that—a research idea. “I wasn’t thinking about starting a company,” he says. “Once we decided to start a company, we set out to optimize and apply our technology on one project, and built the company based on successful results, one project at a time.” This method has proved fruitful. “It is starting to snowball now,” he says, “and we are achieving research breakthroughs that were previously out of reach, for instance by gaining access to multi-subunit ion channels of different subunit compositions and stoichiometries and combinatorial panels of cell lines for hundreds of receptors in parallel.” Blobel is now the Chairman of Chromocell’s Scientific Advisory Board, which oversees the Chromocell team and
monitors the projects’ progress.
“One of the biggest challenges is to continually find and attract the best possible talent,” Shekdar says. “I am always looking for the most capable, motivated, hard-working and talented people to add to the team.” For Shekdar, the Career Center at the Biophysical Society Annual Meetings has proved a wellspring of talent pool. “The Biophysical Society brings together some of the best science and talent,” he says. “Each year, I place a job ad and meet with many people, many of whom are exceptional. Each year, we have found one top person who has subsequently joined the company.”
Srinivasan Venkatachalan met Shekdar at the 52nd Annual Meeting in Long Beach, California, which he attended as a 2008 BPS Student Travel Awardee. He attended Shekdar’s talk in the Drug Discovery for Ion Channels and Transporters VIII satellite meeting to check out career options in industry, and came away with much more: a job lead. Three years later, he’s one of the Chromocell team’s versatile Assistant Scientists, working alongside Shekdar on many of the drug discovery areas in which the company specializes. “Kambiz is like a kid in a candy store when it comes to sharing his excitement for science and discussing novel applications of the company’s patented Chromovert® technology,” says Venkatachalan. “He has a distinctive smile on his face and glint in his eyes every single time he zealously expounds his ideas.”
Indeed, Shekdar is in the business of ideas; that’s how Chromocell was born. “The opportunity for good science in industry is huge and the timing is right,” he says. “There are a lot of technologies now that can be used to translate basic research into commercial applications. Simultaneously, there is a lot of great scientific insight that can only come from an industrial scale in science.” Currently, the Chromocell team is working on “compound discovery programs both for flavors modulation and drug development,” says Shekdar. “In the flavors space, we have been able to recapitulate essentially all taste and smell modalities in cell-based assays that mimic human taste and smell, and we are screening millions of natural compounds and extracts for taste modulators.” Amidst discoveries of the first known enhancers of salt taste and pain-blocking compounds while working with sodium voltage gated channel NaV1.7, the Chromocell team has recently partnered with The Coca-Cola Company to develop and discover natural zero and low-calorie sweetness enhancers for Coke’s beverage products. “Our discovery engine better mimics human biology, eliminating the need to work with partial receptors lacking accessory subunits and mutant receptors, such as tagged or truncated proteins, relying instead on native sequences,” says Shekdar.
What Ryan Loy, Assistant Scientist at Chromocell since meeting Shekdar at the 54th BPS Annual Meeting in San Francisco in 2010, finds remarkable about Shekdar is “his endless excitement for new potential projects, collaborations, and other paths forward that regularly opens doors for development of Chromocell,” he says.
“Many of the employees call him the ‘idea man,’” Venkatachalan adds, relating one of Shekdar’s frequent comments to the team: “‘We are not here to do what others have done previously. We only do things here that others do not attempt or have failed to accomplish.’” With such enthusiasm for the potential just waiting to be tapped on a daily basis, it’s no wonder Shekdar can’t wait to go to work in the morning.
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March 2011 Table of Contents