Director’s Corner

March 13, 2018

Connecting with my past and celebrating the chemistry of the future at the Lilly Grantee Symposium

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the 18th Biennial Lilly Grantee Symposium in Chemistry. Since it was my first visit to Lilly since my retirement it was a great chance to see a number of friends and former colleagues with whom I’d lost touch as our careers diverged as well as spending some additional time with other Lilly friends with whom I’d remained in contact but had not seen lately.

Since my own departure in 2010/2011, Lilly has undergone a number of changes, as have many of its peer companies, and further changes are currently underway. Dan Skovronsky will replace Jan Lundberg as President of Lilly Research Laboratories later this year, and Bret Huff has taken on the leadership of Discovery Chemistry with the retirement of Alan Palkowitz at the end of 2017. I’ve known Bret for much of his Lilly career and remember well his joining my leadership team 18 years ago as I took on my initial management role at that time. Bret cares deeply about Lilly, has a passion for chemistry and a great respect for people. These attributes should serve him well in this new responsibility.

However, the real reason for my trip to Indianapolis was a return to the Lilly Grantee Symposium. The Grantee program is the oldest of its type across pharma, although there are now a number of prestigious pharma chemistry awards that parallel the original Lilly Grantee program. Started in 1965, the award recognizes, celebrates and supports academic chemists early in their career, prior to gaining tenure, and provides them with a 2-year unrestricted grant to enable them to better take the scientific risks necessary to advance the field and establish themselves across the community. The Symposium brings together the most recent grantees, along with a distinguished alumnus of the program for a day to celebrate chemistry writ large. The program was again outstanding, with Harvard’s Emily Balskus, Tom Maimone from UC Berkeley, Purdue’s Mingji Dai, and UChicago’s Guangbin Dong as the most recent recipeients, and Phil Baran from Scripps as the alumni speaker. This year they were joined by Lilly’s Alfonso De Dios as the 6th and final speaker.

The diverse program covered aspects of chemistry ranging from microbiome-mediated drug metabolism, to synthetic strategy, methodology and total synthesis, with keynote speaker Baran using his recent advances to forecast a more optimistic future for synthetic chemistry and to perhaps foreshadow the impact on pharmaceutical and medicinal chemistry. In his closing talk, De Dios demonstrated some of the impact of even ‘boring chemistry’ can have clinically in the story of Abemaciclib, Lilly’s CDK4/6 inhibitor and some of the remarkable responses observed in breast cancer.

Lilly opens its doors to the local scientific community for the Symposium and invites students, faculty and post docs from area universities, who can join Lilly scientists (and retirees) for an outstanding day in celebration of chemistry.

Jim Audia