Skehan Estate Plan Provides for Future Generations at the MBL

Philip-Skehan_lg.jpgIt was the summer of 1961. Philip Skehan had just completed his freshman year at Syracuse University. Now he was in Woods Hole to take the MBL’s Invertebrate Zoology course. When he arrived, Roger Milkman, Phil’s zoology professor at Syracuse and an MBL summer investigator, picked him up at the bus station and showed him around the village. Walking by the Children’s School of Science, the first person they met was Otto Loewi, winner of the 1936 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and a long-time MBL summer researcher. For Phil, it was a memorable way to begin what would become a long association with the MBL. “He was the first of many outstanding scientists that I was fortunate to meet that summer,” says Phil.

The Invertebrate Zoology course introduced Phil to marine biology, an important factor leading him to become scuba certified and later work in seas and oceans around the world. Phil stayed at the MBL throughout the summer to conduct post-course research with Philip Grant of the University of Oregon, who studied sea urchin parthenogenesis (or reproduction using an unfertilized egg). “This was my first introduction to hands-on cell and developmental biology, an area that I later did my doctoral work in at Yale,” says Phil. That summer Phil also met his future wife, Susan Friedman, a research assistant to Dr. George de Villafranca from Smith College.

Phil returned to the MBL for the next two summers to work as a research assistant to Roger Eckert, a Syracuse electrophysiologist. He was also able to sit in on the lectures for both the Physiology and Embryology courses. “There's no other place that has the sheer quantity of outstanding people that the MBL has,” says Phil. “These courses, together with my post-course research with Phil Grant, stimulated my interest in biological growth processes, which later became the focus of my research as an independent investigator.”

In 1967, now a second year graduate student at Yale, Phil returned to the MBL to take the Fertilization and Gamete Training Program and study ion fluxes during sea urchin egg fertilization and early development.

“My summers at the MBL were the most important events of my academic career,” says Phil. “What impressed me most about the MBL was the extraordinary talent of the people there—students, faculty, and researchers alike.” He credits the MBL for providing the foundation that would support the rest of his successful scientific career. “I’m fortunate that both my undergraduate and graduate education were very good, but educationally, in the life sciences, the MBL is in a class by itself.”

During the late stages of his doctoral work, federal research priorities changed to favor medically oriented projects. “After many hours in the library, I realized that the development and progression of cancers were classic, if aberrant, examples of developmental biology, and involved many of the fundamental processes of cell biology,” says Phil. “In addition, the dissemination of cancers was remarkably similar to the animal dispersions of population biology generally and island biogeography in particular. Best of all, cancer biology could be studied year round in cell culture.”

After completing his Ph.D., Phil joined the Oncology Research Group at the University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine where he studied tumor architecture and its role in determining the effectiveness of chemotherapies. His work there led him to the National Cancer Institute, where he formed the In Vitro Working Group that developed the culture methods, drug screening protocols, and data analysis methods for the NCI’s Disease-Oriented In Vitro Anti-Cancer Drug Screening Program. The program screened approximately 15,000 drug samples per year against a panel of 60 human tumor cell lines, representing 10 separate classes of human cancers. The program, which employed 15,000,000 culture wells per year, fundamentally re-invented anti-cancer drug screening.

“We found that the previous screening method used at the NCI and nearly everywhere else in the world did a very poor job of recognizing true chemotherapeutic agents,” says Phil. “Conventional methods of anti-cancer drug discovery generated huge numbers of false positives but often missed very promising drugs, for example, Taxol. It became clear that a major rethink was needed about how to screen for and identify new drugs with anti-cancer potential.”

Phil and his colleagues decided to make marine natural products a major focus of their source material. “Between 60 to 75 percent of anticancer agents and antibiotics are either natural products or derived from natural products,” Phil explains. “These molecules tend to be very complex and are often difficult or impossible to make synthetically.” A marine natural products program was formed within the NCI that collaborated extensively with chemists from institutions such as Scripps Oceanographic, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Harbor Branch Oceanographic, and university programs at Oregon, Stanford, Hawaii, Santa Cruz, and Arizona State. “Nearly everyone involved was a scuba diver, and several were MBL alumni,” says Phil.

In 1994, Phil, several colleagues from the NCI, and two financial professionals from Columbia and Bolivia founded Andes Pharmaceuticals to develop and commercialize innovative drug screening methods for natural products-based drug discovery. Phil served as its Vice President of Drug Discovery and Development until his retirement in 2004. Today he and Susan are enjoying their retirement among the wildlife in rural Washington State, at the western base of the Cascade Mountains.

 

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