Jeffery Kelly, Ph.D., the Lita Annenberg Hazen professor of chemistry at Scripps Research, is no stranger to accolades. Awards and honors for his research in protein folding mechanics and multi-disciplinary therapeutic strategies include the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the 2021 Royal Society Robert Robinson Award in Synthetic Organic Chemistry–SuFEx team, the Edward E. Smissman Award from the American Chemical Society and the 2016 American Institute of Chemists Chemical Pioneer Award, among many others.
Early this month, Kelly added another award to his resume – the 2023 Wolf Prize in Chemistry.
“Receiving the Wolf Prize was a genuine surprise and is an immense privilege, especially considering all the incredible scientists who could have been chosen and who have been chosen before me,” he said. “I am grateful to the remarkable scientists who selected me for this award, to numerous gifted trainees in my laboratory for their creative experimental contributions, and to my Scripps Research colleagues for cultivating the discovery culture that has made me a better scientist.”
Illuminating RNA Dysfunction
The Wolf Foundation awarded Kelly for his research developing therapeutic strategies that amend misfolded proteins that toxically aggregate in the body — a hallmark of many diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
“Protein shapes specify [RNA’s] functions and dysfunctions, so we use chemistry research to understand how the shapes of certain proteins mediate physiology or pathology,” he said.
The award citation specifically highlighted Kelly’s work in “developing a new and clinically impactful strategy to ameliorate disease caused by pathological protein aggregation.”
Kelly’s research discoveries have already led to the development of therapies that alleviate the buildup of toxic quantities of misfolded proteins in the blood that lead to diseases affecting both the cardiovascular and nervous systems. This includes the FDA-approved drug tafamidis – a treatment that slows the progression of the neurodegenerative disease familial amyloid polyneuropathy; and familial and sporadic TTR cardiomyopathy disease, a condition that ultimately causes heart failure.
Other diseases caused by warped proteins that Kelly’s research can lead to therapies for include diseases like Sickle cell anemia and Cystic fibrosis, as well as “most neurodegenerative diseases,” such as ALS and Parkinson’s, which Kelly said his team is working on.
The company Kelly founded, Protego Biopharma, is also working on “a light chain stabilizer drug in light chain amyloidosis,” that is 12 to 18 months away from testing.
“Kelly’s foundational research into protein folding homeostasis and novel therapeutic discoveries have made a global impact, which this award helps showcase,” said Peter Schultz, Ph.D., Scripps Family Chair professor and president and CEO of Scripps Research. “His pioneering, multifaceted work — which is at the intersection of chemistry, biology and biophysics — has not only transformed the scientific world, but more importantly, has shaped the lives of countless patients.”
Wolf Awards are prestigious prizes given to “exceptional achievements in sciences and arts worldwide,” according to the Wolf Foundation website.
The Wolf Foundation began in 1976 with major donations from Dr. Ricardo Subirana y Lobo Wolf and his wife Francisca. Today the foundation is a private nonprofit organization overseen by Israel’s State Comptroller. Israel’s Minister of Education acts as the chairman of the foundation’s council.
Prizes for each category include a diploma and $100,000. Kelly’s prize money will be shared with two other chemists awarded the prize this year: Chuan He, Ph.D, from the University of Chicago, and Hiroaki Suga, Ph.D., from the University of Tokyo.
With his portion of the prize money, Kelly said he “will certainly give some of it away to enable young people to embark on a scientific career.”
In addition to Kelly, five other Scripps Research faculty members have also received the Wolf Prize in Chemistry.
Last year, professor Benjamin Cravatt, Ph.D., received the prize for his breakthroughs in understanding the role of proteins in biological processes and disease. Other previous institute winners are Chi-Huey Wong, Ph.D., Scripps Family Chair professor; K. Barry Sharpless, Ph.D., Nobel laureate and W.M. Keck professor of chemistry; Richard Lerner, M.D., former director and president of Scripps Research and Lita Annenberg Hazen professor of immunochemistry; as well as Scripps CEO Schultz.
CEO: Peter Schultz
Business: Medical and scientific research institute
Headquarters: La Jolla
Revenue: Over $320 million (2020)
Notable: Scripps Research faculty includes 30 members in the National Academies of Sciences, Medicine and Engineering.