Prof. Baldomero Olivera
University of Utah, USA
Baldomero ("Toto") Olivera was born in Manila and received his undergraduate degree in Chemistry from the University of the Philippines (summa cum laude). He came to Caltech in Pasadena, California to do graduate work on the Biophysical Chemistry of DNA and did postdoctoral work in Biochemistry at Stanford. He returned to the Philippines to a faculty position at the Department of Biochemistry, University of the Philippines Medical School. In 1972, he moved to the University of Utah where he is presently a Distinguished Professor of Biology. His early research contributions include the discovery and biochemical characterization of E. coli DNA ligase, a key enzyme of DNA replication and repair that made the recombinant DNA revolution in Biology possible.
Dr. Olivera initiated the identification and characterization of biologically-active peptides found in the venoms of the predatory cone snails. A large number of peptide neurotoxins ("conopeptides") are present in these venoms, and their characterization led Olivera's research group to a broad involvement with molecular neuroscience. Conus venom components are used to investigate the function of individual molecular components of nervous systems, particularly a class of protein complexes known as ion channels. In addition, the cone snail project has raised wide-ranging biological questions, from mechanisms of protein folding and post-translational modification, to gene organization and mechanisms of speciation. Several peptides discovered in Olivera's laboratory have been developed by Biotech and Pharmaceutical companies as therapeutic drugs, three have reached human clinical trials and one (Prialt) has been approved by the FDA in the U.S. for the treatment of intractable pain. Additional applications of these compounds as therapeutics for heart attacks, strokes, epilepsy and other neuropathologies are actively being explored.
The work on Conus peptides has led to a new scientific platform for finding drug leads from animal biodiversity. The genes mediating the biotic interactions of an individual species ("exogenes") are very rapidly diversifying. Olivera's laboratory has shown that identifying exogenes, and using the phylogeny of animal lineages to scan these genes for compounds of interest is an efficient approach to discovery of selective ligands for ion channel families.
Dr. Olivera's work on Conus peptides has been widely recognized by his election as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, to the American Philosophical Society, to the U.S. National Academy of Science, and to the U.S. Institute of Medicine. He was also a recipient of the Outstanding Alumni Award of Caltech, the Redi Award from the International Society for Toxinology and the Harvard Foundation Scientist of the Year 2007 Award from Harvard University.