Along the Road to Discovery While driving north from Coronado Island in San Diego, Eva Engvall Ph.D., turned to Erkki Ruoslahti, M.D., Ph.D., and asked a question that would change their lives and impact the success of a then-small cancer research institute in La Jolla. It was 1979, and both scientists were working at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California. Engvall said the weather, the sun, and the ocean views “…were so fantastic that I turned to Erkki and said, “Wouldn’t it be great to work in San Diego?”
Erkki Ruoslahti, M.D., Ph.D. and Eva Engvall, Ph.D.
That simple question led to referrals from trusted colleagues to William Fishman, Ph.D., founder of the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation, who recruited them as senior scientists that same year.
on to use monoclonal antibodies to discover new tissue proteins, some of which we now understand to be key contributors to severe genetic diseases such as muscular dystrophies and Marfan syndrome.
Fast-forward 37 years later, Ruoslahti is a distinguished professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP), a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and former president of the Institute (from 1989-2002). Engvall is a professor emeritus at SBP and is collaborating on a book about the Institute with Nina Fishman, the founder’s daughter.
Ruoslahti discovered the molecular basis for cell adhesion, a significant advance in cell biology that earned him the Japan Prize 20 years later, and led to two drugs—Integrelin™ and Aggrastat™—that are now used to treat certain forms of heart disease.
“The environment for scientists was and still is wonderful,” says Ruoslahti. After Engvall’s early discovery of the ELISA test—a laboratory method that uses antibodies to detect proteins—she and Ruoslahti improved the technology, creating a new version that is still the basis for many clinical diagnostic tests, such as the one for HIV. Engvall went
NANOMEDICINE And today, Ruoslahti’s science has taken another road. “I got into nanomedicine about 15 years ago,” he says. “I come from a family of engineers (both his father and brother were engineers) so maybe that’s why nanoparticles and materials science are so fascinating to me. Had I known how interesting it was back then, I would have pursued it earlier,” he adds.