Drug Development

Roger Tsien, 1952-2016: “I’ve always been attracted to colors”

Roger Tsien

Roger Tsien, 1952-2016. Credit: UCSD

The Nobel Prize-winning chemist Roger Tsien died at the age of 64 yesterday, triggering a stream of glowing eulogies from the people who knew him or followed his work.

Best known for his groundbreaking work on fluorescent proteins, the UC San Diego professor was also the inspiration for a string of biotechs set up in the San Diego area. Avelas Biosciences just landed a $20 million round to pursue the development of a cancer ‘illuminator’ dubbed AVB-620. That was the third startup Avalon Ventures had founded with Tsien’s help.

I’ve always been attracted to colors,” Dr. Tsien told the Union-Tribune at one point. “Color helps make the work more interesting and endurable. It helps when things aren’t going well. If I had been born colorblind, I probably never would have gone into this.”

There’s still no word on just what killed him on a bike trail in Eugene, OR. But whatever the cause, his death spurred considerable sadness at the sudden and unexpected loss. Here are a few of those eulogies:

Derek Lowe, who blogs at In The Pipeline, had this to say:

Tsien’s discoveries have been crucial for visualizing molecular biology techniques as applied to living cells and in vitro protein systems, and everyone doing biopharma discovery research will constantly encounter proteins, assays, and cell lines based on them.

It is no exaggeration to say that he changed the course of the field; he gave it spectacularly useful tools it had never had before. Tsien’s loss is a sudden blow, and I’m sure I can speak for many others when I say that it’s news that we all could have done without just now.


Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel laureate and president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, told the San Diego Union-Tribune:

“Roger Tsien was truly one of the most remarkable and inspiring scientists of our time. He will be sorely missed as a colleague for his revolutionary work and keen mind, and also as a wonderful person. I felt privileged to get to know him over the years.”

Pradeep Khosla, chancellor of UC San Diego:

Every honor was justly deserved, and always received with humility. Roger was an extraordinary man: kind, generous, gracious, and always the consummate scientist pushing the limits of his work to expand the possibilities of science. He was a rare talent we cannot replace.”

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