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Science Alumni Profile: Scripps Researcher Carlos Barbas '85 Focuses on New Therapeutic Approaches for Cancer, HIV

posted on 12/16/2009

by Mary Ellen Collins

Dr. Carlos F. Barbas, III earned his Bachelor's degree in Chemistry and Physics from Eckerd College in 1985. He was recognized for excellence in organic chemistry this past summer when he was awarded an Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award from the American Chemical Society.

Carlos Barbas '85, Janet & W. Keith Kellogg II Chair Professor and Chair in the chemistry and molecular biology departments at the Scripps Research Institute, had lofty aspirations as a child.

"I always wanted to be a scientist, an astronaut or a brain surgeon," says the St. Petersburg native. He enrolled at Eckerd when he was sixteen, having left Shorecrest Preparatory School after completing all of the upper division science courses, but before graduating. It turned out to be a great decision. Barbas started out as a chemistry major, but added physics after being inspired by Professor Harry Ellis.

"Wayne Guida in organic chemistry and Harry Ellis in physics were great teachers and great people," he says. "I liked Eckerd so much - it was very flexible, and you had a lot of freedom to form your own schedule. My only regret is that I didn't take a fifth year."

Although a background in chemistry and physics made him a natural fit for graduate schools with nuclear chemistry programs, he had done a summer fellowship in nuclear chemistry at San Jose State University and says, "I wasn't in love with it." Fortunately, a providential accident led him to a different, and more fulfilling path.

When his roommate was driving him to Tampa International Airport to catch a flight for an interview at Texas A&M, he got stopped and ticketed, leading Barbas to miss the flight. That resulted in a rescheduled interview with a different group of faculty members. "The new group of professors included an organic chemist, Chi-Huey Wong whose work was really exciting," says Barbas. "I dropped nuclear chemistry and went with organic chemistry, and it worked out very well."

After completing his Ph.D. at Texas A&M, he went to Penn State and started a post-doc on developing antibodies technology. He finished it at Scripps, where he became an assistant professor in molecular biology in 1991. He focuses his research on developing new therapeutic approaches to treating cancer and HIV.

"I've also started three companies that are all based on therapeutic antibodies and inventions I've made," Barbas explains. "It lets me take my inventions to the next step." His companies include Prolifaron, started in 1997 and acquired by Alexion; and Cov-X, started in 2002 and bought by Pfizer. In 2008, he launched his newest company, Zynegenia, which focuses on the development of the next generation of antibody-derived drugs.

When Barbas chose to become a researcher instead of an astronaut or a brain surgeon, he gave up the opportunity for interstellar travel and changing patient's lives in a hands-on way, but he acknowledges and appreciates the benefits of the life he chose.

"It's better than I envisioned. I didn't realize when I was studying science all the other opportunities it gives you to see the world. I have a very interesting kind of job that includes traveling the world to give talks… Things that I've worked on are being tested on people, and at some point, there will probably be someone in my family or someone I know who benefits directly [from my efforts]."

Barbas looks at Eckerd's new Center for Molecular and Life Sciences as a way to encourage more students to choose the scientific path, and ultimately, to strengthen the pool of researchers who will be on the forefront of the next generation of medical advances.

"I'm very optimistic about the impact of science on the country. I certainly favor channeling more Americans into science. We've spent a lot of time training scientists who are now going back to their own countries. Ten years ago, they didn't. Countries like India and China are going to start giving us very big competition."

Eckerd's focus on science ensures that students who want to follow in Barbas' footsteps will have the educational and research foundation they need to take their place as the medical scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs of the future.

This feature is the fifth of a series of profiles of Eckerd alumni and friends who embody the emphasis of the Sciences at Eckerd College. Learn more about the Many Experiences, One Spirit: The Campaign for Eckerd College and the Center for Molecular and Life Sciences, a Campaign priority.

Read Previous Science Profiles:
Paul Cheney '69
Harry Johns '90
Patrick Griffin
Jeffrey Dodge '84

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