Dale Schenk: Alzheimer's researcher
'The synthesis of a hundred little ideas'
By Porter Anderson
(CNN) -- "If I had to take a Mini-Mental test, the test we give Alzheimer's patients, I'd never score 100 because I never know what day it is.
"I look so far forward, that it's not reality. I'm in the space of having the data from the trial -- so what do we do next.
"It would be nice to enjoy this moment."
But Dale B. Schenk, Ph.D., the lead researcher on Elan Corporation's experimental vaccine designed to fight Alzheimer's, isn't spending the day kicking back. He's at his lab in San Francisco and, as he says, contemplating the next move.
"To do well in science," he says, "you have to think about a problem all the time for a number of years. It's the synthesis of a hundred little ideas. You have to go backward, put it back together," to understand how a crumb trail of data has led you to a potentially promising approach.
Reports that Schenk's AN-1792 trial has cleared a first phase of testing for safety in humans -- and is showing an immune response -- make up the sort of industry-riveting news that makes Elan, based in Dublin, Ireland, intensely proud of the researcher it found on staff when it acquired California's Athena Neurosciences in 1996.
And it's the kind of news that made Schenk winner of this year's coveted Potamkin Prize from the American Academy of Neurology (AAN). "It was wonderful," Schenk says, sounding as if he just may have managed to be in the moment when he accepted the award on May 8 at the AAN's annual meeting in Philadelphia. The Potamkin -- seen by some as a potential precursor to Nobel consideration -- is a peer award, and the AAN has some 17,500 neurology professionals in its membership.
"You never really, truly know what your colleagues think of you," Schenk says. "You say it doesn't matter. And it's not the most important thing, of course. But to have such recognition by your colleagues? It's enormously powerful. It helps you sleep a little better at night."
The prize, followed by news of the successful first phase of testing, is particularly sweet because this year's Potamkin is the first time since the award's inception in 1988 that it's gone to a corporate researcher, a member of a pharmaceutical giant's staff.
"I had no clue," says Schenk, 44, "they thought that highly of me."
Lose the piano, keep the chess
Schenk, a man who laughs quickly and loves to get off quips about his work and scientists in general, is the son of a firefighter and a journalist. He's the younger brother of a sister who's an artist and a brother who owns automotive shops.
"I'm the only scientist in the family. I wasn't well understood, that's for sure."
Growing up in Glendora, California, about 17 miles east of Los Angeles, "I started playing chess from the time I was 8 or 9. That and piano.
"I wish that every would-be scientist had to play chess because it's a puzzle that no one's ever solved. Yet everything is staring you in the face. You make the most of the pieces in your hand. Everybody knows what they are and yet somebody who's brilliant at it can find a winning combination and no one else will see it.
"It also takes an opening, a middle game and ending. You can't win against the strong player if you don't do all three well."
By the time he was 12 or 13, Schenk says, he was making a choice between pursuing piano and medical research. He chose research because it could have a helpful impact on so many people -- "and because piano is a hard row to hoe."
Schenk chortles delightedly at the assertion that neurobiological research might seem to some a "hard row to hoe" in its own right.
Then: "I thought about being a clinician. You have one patient at a time, direct interaction. But over the course of time, it's not the effect you can have in research, not the same. I think the way research works, you either make a big difference or have an entire career and not have any real impact on patients. But I was ready to take that risk."
Schenk took his BS cum laude with distinction in biology at the University of California-San Diego. "They have something there called Revelle College, where they kind of force you to learn humanities. Something like 80 percent of the students go on to get masters' or Ph.D.'s, so they're not going to get the humanities later."
Schenk then went into UCSD's physiology and pharmacology schools in the department of medicine. "I took all the courses as if I was going to med school, then I went on to do research. I didn't know then that I'd go into neurology. But to this day, I remember going into final exams with a stack of index cards 10 inches high."
Having done his Ph.D. thesis in a lab in basic research on biochemistry -- "that's where I got my first taste of monochromal antibodies" -- Schenk got a full-time post at the California company now called Scios.
"They were working on hypertension and I was studying a hormone called ANF, a factor that drops blood pressure dramatically. But no one knew what the receptor was for it. It didn't bother anyone else but it bothered me. So I went off and I isolated the receptor for it.
"This was in 1986. I gave the plenary lecture at the Society for Hypertension. Usually, the guys who give the plenary lectures are 50 years old. There I was, 27 or 28. It was a big deal."
Schenk laughs at what must be a quick chess-like comparative evaluation, a look back at where he was then and where he stands now in the research community: "That was my first taste of scientific stardom."
The star rises
Today, Schenk is vice president of a division called Discovery Research for Elan, which has major R&D and manufacturing sites in Ireland, the United States and Israel. Elan is traded on the New York Stock Exchange (ELN) and also on London's and Dublin's bourses. And Schenk points to the original paper on AN-1792 from 1999 -- "Look, there are 30 authors on that paper."
He's noting that while he's the lead researcher, little of this work is done alone. "Clearly, this is my idea. In fact, everybody thought I was quite crazy" when he led the way into study of the very peptide that triggers the plaque deposits which overwhelm the brain when Alzheimer's strikes.
"Without all the scientists" working with him, "you don't have it," he says. "They take the idea, follow it, articulate it. I often throw out a lot of ideas, most of which I don't think are very good. They say, 'Let's try a pilot on this,' or 'No, not that.' This is how we work.
And how does he play?
"This has come with a personal cost," he says. "I have three kids, I'm on my second marriage." And a part of the reason the first marriage came apart, he says, was that "my wife and my kids didn't see me as much as they'd have liked. I have a two-year-old boy now. I relish my time with him, and I wish I had more. The balance is never perfect, but I think I'm getting better.
"Age is a wonderful teacher. I like that."
A standard day at this stage in the research, he says, runs from about 8 in the morning to 7 in the evening. "It's not terrible. It's more a toll on the mental side" -- that constant thinking, concentration on the focus of the research.
A part of Schenk's motivation, he says, comes from having known victims of the degenerative disease of the brain that inexorably attacks nerve cells, causing impairment and loss of memory and mental functions.
"My grandmother wasn't officially diagnosed, but most likely did die of Alzheimer's disease. And two members of my church -- people I knew and liked -- had it. They deteriorated and died. I saw them every week. I was working on the disease and watching them die. I remember conversations with one of them, this guy -- he'd say, 'I feel myself slipping away; what can you do for me?'"
Still an avid chess player, Schenk says, "I always have a board with me -- but I can't keep one set up in the office. I'd never get anything done."
A moment's reflection -- in this big moment in which he can hardly stop to reflect -- and he's back, mentally at the board, looking at the pieces, thinking ... "You know, in a chess tournament, you go home when it's late and you come back the next week. The board stays where it was when play stopped. And you study that same position for the week you're away, hour after hour after hour, going over all the variations. Science is like that: 'Holy s--t, I can move my piece there!'
"It would be nice to really enjoy this moment right now, but my thoughts are on how we're going to tackle Alzheimer's disease in addition to this, and how we're going to tackle Parkinson's -- you have to be ahead of the curve. It's the habit you have to develop.
"The key thing is persistence. And creativity. Motivation. And a little luck can never hurt."
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Revelle College, University of California-San Diego
School of Medicine, University of California-San Diego
American Academy of Neurology
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