Richard Lerner, antibody pioneer and longtime president of Scripps Research, dies at 83
Richard Lerner, the esteemed biochemist who pioneered a new way to develop monoclonal antibodies and led Scripps Research Institute to prominence, has passed away.
A spokesperson for Scripps told the San Diego Union-Tribune that Lerner died of cancer in his La Jolla home. He was 83 years old.
Among other things, Lerner’s lab was known for devising a new technique for creating antibodies — deployed as cancer treatments as well as in immunology and disease research — one that the New York Times called a “major advance in biotechnology.” It led to companies making mAbs a thousand times faster, more accurately, at a lower cost. That foundational research cemented the discovery of Humira, which went on to become the world’s best-selling treatment.
Lerner was trained at Stanford, and served as the director and president of Scripps from 1987 until 2012. In that time, the institution established a Florida campus, started a bi-coastal graduate school and climbed its way to the top-10 graduate programs of its kind in the US.
“We felt we were with him on a non-stop adventure,” Paul Shimmel, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps, said in an obituary. “Like pioneers of the old west, who would transform medical research and its associated graduate education.”
As a manager, Lerner had an eye for star researchers, famously recruiting Barry Sharpless, who went on to win the Nobel Prize. Two other scientists with ties to Scripps — Benjamin List, a former postdoctoral researcher for Lerner — and Ardem Patapoutian, who is currently with Scripps, were awarded Nobel Prizes this fall.
“Richard had a tremendous influence on science, the institute, and the lives and work of many of us at Scripps Research,” Scripps CEO and president Peter Schultz said. “He was truly a giant and his vision, leadership and passion for science will be deeply missed.”
Known as a creative interdisciplinary scientist, Lerner’s lab developed synthetic peptide vaccines, catalytic antibodies, and combinatorial antibody and DNA-encoded chemical libraries. He started at Scripps as a postdoctoral fellow in 1965, then left for a year to do research for the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia before coming back home to Scripps in 1970.
Lerner, often described as entrepreneurial, was also a member of the board of directors for several companies, including Kraft Foods, Sequenom, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Intra-Cellular Therapeuties. He holds holds honorary degrees from from Oxford University, Ben-Gurion University, Northwestern University, Karolinska Institute and Florida Atlantic University.
He is survived by his wife Nicky, and three children Danica, Arik and Aaron.