Dr. Jeffery W. Kelly obtained a B.S. in Chemistry from SUNY-Fredonia and his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the University of North Carolina. He is now the Lita Annenberg Hazen Professor of Chemistry and the Chair of the Department of Molecular and Experimental Medicine at the Scripps Research Institute in California. Dr. Kelly has co-founded three biotech companies, one of which, FoldRx Pharmaceuticals, was sold to Pfizer on his 50th birthday, three days after our conversation. Dr. Kelly likes to race vintage cars and has seen Top Gun multiple times.
Basically what motivates me to come to work every day is to try to understand the mechanisms of diseases, and at a high enough level that we can conceive of a way to correct them and develop drugs that nobody has thought of before. So I guess that’s what really encourages me. We do quite a bit of basic research where it probably isn’t so obvious why we’re doing it if we’re interested in improving the human condition, but it all has a sort of basis in discovering the etiology of human disease.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I actually started to appreciate what science was, and I didn’t even go to college as a scientist. At that point I really liked mechanical things. I went to college to be an engineer, but I rapidly sort of discovered that engineering wasn’t very creative. You know, mostly what you did was look up things in tables. I suppose had I gone into something like engineering Formula 1 cars, I would’ve loved it and probably I would be an engineer today. But that wasn’t what I was presented with, and so I found engineering pretty boring.
Certainly 5-0 is a pretty big number. It makes you think. I wouldn’t say it’s dread, but it’s certainly made me think.
One of the huge advantages of being a professor at a dynamic place with a graduate program and medical students and the like is that they keep you young, so I don’t really think of myself as being middle aged. But I’m probably even older than middle aged, certainly by today’s lifespan. I guess a couple years ago I started to really think about that. It certainly makes one think about how important one’s health is and being in good physical condition and all that. I think it’s easy to sort of lose sight of that sometimes. You know, when you make it to 50, now you want to make it to 100, right? At least I do.
I can still go out and ride my bike 50 miles and run a 10K, so I guess chronological age and sort of capacity age can be different things. And I know I’m 50 years old. There’s no debating that. But I try to keep young, you know, based on exercise and other criteria.
I remember when I was a kid, 50 just seemed like somebody who was ancient. And, of course, I have a different perspective about that now, but I think it’s true that once you get pretty close to 50 younger people start to look at you a little differently. And I’ve certainly experienced that.
I have to say no to a lot of things, just so I can keep my head above water. And that’s not as fun as it was in the early days, where I could sort of do whatever I wanted to do and still have enough time to do it all. I don’t like to pull all-nighters anymore.
I think for me personally, I’m clearly still going up the hill in terms of productivity, creativity and the like. And I think that’s true of a lot of people these days. I see some of my colleagues here, too, who are well into their seventies and still pretty damn productive and creative. I mean, I think the only way one can assess these things is retrospectively, right? I mean, you always want to believe that your best days are still in front of you. I can certainly say that over the last five years, we’ve never been as productive, ever, in previous five-year periods as we have been in the last five years. I hope it keeps up. We’ll see.
It turns out that the brain is much like the heart, and the peripheral nervous system as well, so the first drug that we discovered that will likely be approved will be for peripheral neuropathy. And then the second drug that is coming along pretty well is for cardiomyopathy. The heart, like the brain, doesn’t really regenerate. So all of those diseases result from degeneration of one tissue type or an organ.
My perception, based on the patients that I know and my knowledge of the disease, is that Alzheimer’s generally does not impair the happiness of the person who has it as much as it impairs the happiness of the person’s family.
You’d have to be very unlucky to get Alzheimer’s disease before you’re, say, 70. And I think any human being that makes it to 70 should be satisfied. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment. That’s a lucky accomplishment.
A disease like cancer is really hard to fix, still. That’s something I certainly hope doesn’t happen to me. I wouldn’t say I think about it every day, but once in a while I definitely think about mortality, I suppose.
I guess I’m scared of cancer in part because my wife died from it. And I’m fearful because I see all the time how poorly we understand this spectrum of complicated diseases. There are very few cancers today that we can cure. I wouldn’t say most, but a good fraction of people who contract cancer will die from it, whereas I think it’s the case that, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, we’re going to have pretty good drugs for Alzheimer’s in a decade. And I think as long as one is in their mid-fifties, the chance of those drugs being protective will be very high. I mean, I see the renaissance coming. And I think the extension of human lifespan will occur very much in the way that it’s occurred for heart disease.
I was probably 40, watching my wife just finish medical school and, you know, a year later she was dead. That’s when I realized life wasn’t fair.
I think the wonderful thing about the human mind is that you do forget things. And I certainly haven’t forgotten my wife, but I don’t think about her every day. I did in the first four or five years. I think that’s how you deal. That’s how everybody deals with it, right? You just sort of… It pops up less frequently, and eventually it, becomes a rarer event.
I think it depends a lot on what kind of person you were before the event happens. I’ve always been an incredibly optimistic person and sort of very much an investor in the future, both financially and otherwise.
I think if you were that kind of person and something untoward or really bad happens to you, it might make you think, but I don’t think that fundamentally changed my optimism or my approach to daily life. Maybe it should have, but it didn’t. I feel like my life sort of has a purpose. I really feel like I’m privileged to be able to do what I do, and I really enjoy it. Do I take a little bit more financial chances now than I did when I was 30? Yeah. You know, I bought a Porsche recently, but I really love cars, and I just decided, Well, I should do it. Money in the bank, after a certain point, doesn’t help you anymore.
But I see, however, some of my colleagues, who… I mean, that kind of event, for lack of a better terminology, has ruined their lives.
I suppose the death of someone really close always has that potential. I guess both my wife’s family and my family, and me in particular, are just very optimistic. You know, I believe that good things are going to happen. But yeah, I mean, you have to be realistic, too.
I guess my family was very optimistic, but I don’t know what led me to be optimistic. I think it just… It was the way I am … It’s the way I am.
Our business is not one for compliments. I think the best compliment is likely going to happen next week. There’s going to be a major pharmaceutical company that’s going to buy our little company. This has been a really significant uphill battle, especially in the beginning. But we were clearly on the right track a decade ago when we started this.
I guess professionally I’d love to discover a couple more drugs that would help humanity. And personally I’d like to go to a lot of places that I haven’t gone to.
I’m not a big scrapbook guy, right? I mean, I don’t even take that many pictures. I have a pretty good memory, and I’m looking to experience things I haven’t experienced.
I’m never home. I’m not a homebody. I like to get out and do things.
I love to race vintage cars. And I’m never going to be an awesome driver, just because I didn’t start young enough. People who are really exceptional drivers tend to be people who did it when they were 5 or 10 or pretty early. I enjoy it. I have a lot of fun at it. I’m decent, but I’m not great. And, I have to say, a lot of what makes young people excellent professional drivers is that they’re fearless. You know, they have no concept that life will end at some point. That’s a pretty nice thing to have when you’re trying to be the best in the world at something.
I don’t see a huge change in my life coming, although I’ve certainly toyed with the idea of making a big difference in a country that could benefit from it. But politically, the hurdles associated with doing that, say, in Africa or something like that, are really significant, and I’m not sure I have the political skills to do that. At a certain point, would I consider being a university president or something? Possibly. But I’ve had a pretty high administrative role here, and I enjoyed it, but, you know, there are a lot of people who can do those jobs. There aren’t many people who can discover drugs.