Arkin named next chair of Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry

Over 20 years ago, Michelle Arkin, PhD, kicked off her scientific career working with teams of pharmaceutical industry researchers, developing drugs for autoimmune conditions and cancer. But the allure of following her scientific curiosities as an academic drew her to UCSF, where she continued to work on drug discovery as a faculty member in the UCSF School of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry.

“For Michelle, breaking impasses in disease treatment has always been the priority,” said James Wells, PhD, a former mentor and now colleague of Arkin’s in the department. “She also just knows how to create an environment where everyone around her can succeed.”

Effective January 4, 2021, Arkin will assume the chairship of the Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry. She will be the department’s 11th chair, succeeding current chair Matthew Jacobson, PhD, who is stepping down after five years.

Jacobson leaves Arkin a department that is not only an incubator of world-class science, but also an equitable workplace where students, staff, and faculty receive the support they need for fulfilling careers, according to School of Pharmacy Dean B. Joseph Guglielmo, PharmD.

Arkin joins Tejal Desai, PhD, chair of the Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences, and Lisa Kroon, PharmD, chair of the Department of Clinical Pharmacy.

“Michelle has fostered some of the boldest scientific initiatives here at UCSF, and her expertise with drug discovery has proven vital to the School’s research, education, and patient care missions,” said Guglielmo. “We are thrilled to welcome her into the School’s leadership group.”

Academia to industry and back again

Arkin earned her PhD in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology in 1997 before completing a Damon Runyon postdoctoral fellowship at Genentech. As a lead scientist at Sunesis Pharmaceuticals in the mid-2000s, she was instrumental in developing one of the first drug inhibitors of a protein-protein interaction, led the cell biology team for the now FDA-approved drug treatment for dry eye lifitegrast, and led the nonclinical team for the experimental anti-cancer drug vosaroxin.

In 2007, Arkin left Sunesis to join the School’s Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, following Sunesis cofounder Wells, who had made the same jump to UCSF in 2005. Her laboratory quickly became known for identifying active compounds for previously “undruggable targets”—potentially disease-causing proteins that lack molecular pockets in which drug therapies can easily bind.

“Throughout my career at Sunesis and UCSF, I’ve been fascinated by these ‘high-hanging fruit’ targets for drug discovery,” said Arkin. “All the projects in my lab have this flavor – what are important and unsolved problems that could be addressed using novel chemical tools?”

Arkin also began overseeing the biology team at the Small Molecule Discovery Center, housed in the Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, which facilitates high-throughput chemical screening experiments for labs across departments and schools. Like the work done in Arkin’s own lab, the 150 screens that the SMDC has carried out have helped her home department build new, fruitful collaborations, including several with pharmaceutical companies that are currently testing drug candidates for various conditions.

“We're not a very big department, but our tentacles reach far into the science of the University,” said Arkin. “Having such a diverse network at UCSF is exciting, and with my background in industry, I can help build new opportunities for our scientists and support for our work.”

Arkin herself recently co-founded two new companies to translate discoveries into therapies. Elgia, founded in collaboration with School colleague Adam Renslo, PhD, and a number of faculty members at UCSD, is pursuing therapies for chronic inflammatory diseases. Another company, Ambagon, founded with Christian Ottmann, PhD and Luc Brunsveld, PhD, both faculty members at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, is developing new drug candidates that stabilize molecular interactions between proteins for therapeutic benefit.

“There’s immense practical potential for new therapies based on modulating protein-protein interactions,” said Arkin.

Bringing the best to the table

In addition to her research activities as a principal investigator of a lab and SMDC head, Arkin has earned a broader reputation at UCSF as a deft collaborator, leader, and educator. She has served multiple stints on the UCSF Academic Senate, and in 2018, she stepped up to represent UCSF on the Joint Research Committee of Project ATOM (Accelerating Therapeutics for Opportunities in Medicine).

Project ATOM is a public/private consortium, consisting of scientists from UCSF, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), the National Cancer Institute’s Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research (FNLCR), and the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), that seeks to dramatically accelerate the process of drug discovery.

Arkin’s representation of UCSF alongside the pharmaceutical industry has ensured that UCSF’s medicinal chemists, biologists, and clinicians can all contribute to the next generation of medical therapies.

“The ability to get things done at UCSF depends on earning trust and respect as both a leader and a scientist, on being able to work with other departmental chairs to get a critical mass of people to accomplish lofty goals,” said Jacobson. “Michelle is going to step into this role of department chair from a great position of strength thanks to the connections she’s already built, bringing a lot of energy and new ideas to the table.”

Arkin has also made invaluable contributions to the training of future generations of pharmacists in the School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, according to Guglielmo, leading courses on drug discovery and the pipeline to FDA approval.

“When it comes down to it, Michelle has balanced a formidable career in her chosen field while contributing to the greater good of the School and University,” he said.

Arkin is looking forward to being a responsible and future-minded steward of the “Pharm Chem” community that has been her academic home for so many years. And despite the challenges that COVID-19 has posed for safely carrying out research, she is impressed at how the pandemic has inspired the department to dedicate its expertise toward finding new therapies in record time.

“Especially with COVID research, we’ve seen the success of these very public, large, collaborative groups,” said Arkin. “It's a float all boats kind of issue for us. How can we bring in more support for the things that the University wants to be doing? How can we make sure that our department is front and center for that discussion? And how can we continue to take care of all of the hardworking scientists, from our trainees to our faculty members, to enable them to continue to do world-leading science?”


School of Pharmacy, Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, PharmD Degree Program

About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy aims to solve the most pressing health care problems and strives to ensure that each patient receives the safest, most effective treatments. Our discoveries seed the development of novel therapies, and our researchers consistently lead the nation in NIH funding. The School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, with its unique emphasis on scientific thinking, prepares students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their field.