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Merck Research Labs chief Peter Kim to join Department of Biochemistry

Peter Kim

Merck & Co. Inc

By Bruce Goldman

Peter S. Kim, who for the past decade has served as president of Merck Research Laboratories, will join the Stanford University School of Medicine faculty as a professor of biochemistry.

"I'm thrilled to come back to Stanford," said Kim, 55, who earned a PhD in biochemistry here in 1985.

Kim, who will take up his position at Stanford on Feb. 1, also will be a member of the new Stanford Institute of Chemical Biology. The institute, a joint venture of the School of Medicine, School of Engineering and School of Humanities & Sciences, brings together faculty interested in strengthening the chemical foundations of biomedical science.

"We in Stanford Medicine are simply delighted that Peter will be joining our faculty," said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. "With his many years as an innovative researcher and his extensive work in developing and shepherding drugs to market, Peter exemplifies our commitment to ensuring that the patients we see in our clinics benefit from the discoveries we make in our laboratories."

"Peter Kim's accomplishments as a structural biologist, mentor and captain of industry are legendary," said chemistry professor Chaitan Khosla, PhD, director of the Institute of Chemical Biology and the Wells H. Rauser and Harold M. Petiprin Professor in the School of Engineering. "He has made seminal contributions not only to the field of protein folding but also to our understanding of viral infection. What is perhaps most impressive about Peter is his restless spirit. I have every confidence that Peter's greatest achievements lie ahead of him."

Suzanne Pfeffer, PhD, professor and chair of biochemistry and the Emma Pfeiffer Merner Professor of Medical Sciences, said Kim "brings a unique mix of scientific and business credentials to Stanford."

"We're delighted that Peter has selected Stanford for the next chapter of his already remarkable career," she said. "His experiences in industry will be invaluable to our trainees, and his expertise and leadership will help cement the foundation of the new Chemical Biology Institute."

During his 12 years at Merck Research Laboratories, the research-and-development hub of pharmaceutical maker Merck & Co., Kim led teams of chemists, biologists, engineers, statisticians and clinicians. Among the many products launched under his watch was a vaccine targeting human papilloma virus, the causative agent of cervical cancer.

"Over a half-million women are diagnosed every year with this horrible cancer, which strikes them in the prime of their life," Kim said. "More than half die from it. The HPV vaccine, if we can distribute it broadly enough, could prevent up to 70 percent of these cancers." The day the HPV vaccine was approved, "everybody in the company had an extra skip in their step," he recalled.

Kim also oversaw the development of vaccines against rotavirus (responsible for more than 500,000 deaths annually worldwide) and shingles (the painful reawakening of a long-dormant chickenpox infection in older or otherwise immune-compromised people). In addition, drugs with novel mechanisms of action to treat type-2 diabetes, HIV and the hepatitis C virus were introduced during his tenure.

"We saw some wonderful successes, together with some pretty visible failures," he said. "That comes with the game."

At Stanford, Kim initially pursued an MD/PhD through the university's Medical Scientist Training Program. As he became increasingly committed to research in biochemistry, he decided to forgo the two remaining years of clinical training for an MD. However, he said, "that medical training provided a foundation for applying my basic research to solving problems in human health."

After completing his doctoral work, Kim began a three-year independent postdoctoral position as a Whitehead Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-affiliated Whitehead Institute. In 1988, he joined the faculty of MIT's biology department, where for the next 13 years he conducted research on how proteins fold, how they carry out their myriad functions and how their shapes influence their activity. In 1999, he became associate head of the department.

During his time at MIT, Kim uncovered a basic mechanism by which the influenza virus breaks into cells. As it turned out, this mechanism applies to a number of viruses, including HIV. Shifting his focus to the latter, Kim designed compounds that blocked the virus from entering cells and began searching for an HIV vaccine based on similar principles.

In 2001, Kim was recruited to Merck Research Laboratories, where he ascended to the top job in 2003.

A decade of running the huge teams necessary for bringing a drug across the finish line has Kim eager to return to independent research. A self-declared optimist, he hopes to make progress on an HIV vaccine, which he called "the world's most important unmet medical need."

And he hopes to share his drug-development experience. "What I can bring to the table is an additional perspective that encompasses the pharmaceutical side of this equation," he said. "It's important that academic work that can be translated does get translated. I'll certainly be looking, at the institutional level, for ways to make it easier for individuals to navigate the translational pathway."

The co-author of more than 130 peer-reviewed scientific articles, Kim holds 17 patents and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He also is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine.

"I have wonderful memories of Stanford," Kim said. "I've seen up close the dramatic changes that have occurred since I was a graduate student here." He is married and has three sons, all of whom are students at Stanford.