Editor’s Note: In mid-May, Scientific American will announce the winners of this year’s Scientific American 10. Every Monday, starting April 13, we will profile a previous Scientific American 50 winner.
Year in Scientific American 50: 2005
Recognized for: Seeking ways to mend heart tissue damaged by heart attacks. Although recent research indicates that adult heart cells can regenerate, overturning a long-held medical tenet, they still do so very slowly. Back in 2005 Mark Keating and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School succeeded in getting heart cells in two commonly used animal models—zebra fish and rats—to mend much faster by blocking a growth-inhibiting enzyme with a drug. The work could point the way to healing humans someday.
What has happened to his work: Keating's work with developing drugs for regenerating heart tissue has largely subsided as researchers pin their hopes on stem cells, which can form myriad tissue types, and possibly cardiac muscle. "This has played out differently than I would have expected back in 2005," Keating says, although "both dreams [of using drugs or stem cells] remain alive and are moving closer to reality."
What he is doing now: Keating is now vice president and global head of ophthalmology at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. He left academia for the pharmaceutical company in August 2005 to jump-start work on developing drugs for eye conditions. Besides his work at Harvard, Keating was also a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute before coming to Novartis.
Why did he make the anatomical leap from the heart to the eye? "I haven't cared if I were working in one organ system or another," Keating says. "I just want to help patients and make discoveries."
The biggest breakthrough during his time with Novartis, he says, has been Lucentis. Discovered by Genentech, licensed by Novartis and brought to market in 2007, the drug treats age-related macular degeneration, a breakdown of retinal tissue in the eye that is the leading cause of vision loss for people aged 60 and older in the U.S. Keating says the drug improves vision in about a third of patients, and slows the disease's progression in nine out of 10, overall.
While at Novartis, Keating has helped identify some 40 visual ailments suitable for drug treatment, from glaucoma to diabetic retinopathy. "We’re marching through all 40 of these disorders," he says. "We have a number of experiments cooking right now and will get answers over the next few years."