Integrating Medicine with Basic Science

Justin Annes, MD, PhD, assistant professor of endocrinology, gerontology and metabolism, and ChEM-H faculty fellow, feels that he owes a great deal of credit for his unique research program to the ChEM-H Institute, which stands for Chemistry, Engineering & Medicine for Human Health. “What they do,” he says, “is take a physician scientist like me and enable me to bring chemistry into the laboratory in a really significant way.” Envisioned by Chaitan Khosla, PhD, professor of chemistry, ChEM-H is co-directed with Carolyn Bertozzi, PhD, professor of chemistry, “both outstanding scientists and wonderful leaders,” Annes says.

He continues: “ChEM-H has allowed me to unleash chemistry in an informed and supported way. One important person for me has been Mark Smith, PhD, director of the ChEM-H Medicinal Chemistry Knowledge Center, who is an engaged partner in our drug-development programs. Another is Justin Du Bois, PhD, associate professor of chemistry, who has generously provided the chemists in my group an environment and culture of chemistry. We recently developed a first-generation ‘smart drug’ that applies the principles of chemistry to selectively target a regenerative medicine to insulin-producing β-cells. We hope someday this medicine will be used to reverse diabetes.”

Annes has also developed an interdisciplinary research effort that integrates engineering, chemistry, and biology. “My collaboration with Amin Arbabian, PhD, an electrical engineer, and Richard Zare, PhD, a chemist, aims to develop a new nanoparticle-based drug-delivery microdevice to reverse life-threatening hypoglycemia in diabetic patients. This is a uniquely Stanford project as it reaches across scientific disciplines that normally don’t interact. My role as leader of the Stanford Diabetes Research Center enrichment program, which fosters cross-disciplinary work, was instrumental in developing this collaboration.”

This is one of the great joys of being in an academic institution: discovery and mentorship all in one moment

Annes’ research and clinical interests, which are in diabetes and hereditary endocrine disorders, have led him to work with patients who have two neuroendocrine tumor-related conditions, pheochromocytoma and paragangliomas. While at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, says Annes, “I became the pheochromocytoma and paraganglioma guy, and when I came to Stanford I continued to see these patients, extending my practice to neuroendocrine tumors in general. I got to know Pamela Kunz, MD, assistant professor of oncology, a leader in neuroendocrine tumors on the oncology side. Over the years we’ve brought our clinics together, and now we have an endocrine cancer clinical program.”

When not seeing patients, Annes can be found in his lab where, he says, “our driving principle is to harness the power of chemistry to deliver new insights into biologic function and to develop a regenerative therapeutic for diabetes and improved chemotherapeutics for our neuroendocrine tumor patients.”

His lab spans the spectrum of preclinical drug development. His biologists, chemists, and biochemists work with animal models to understand pathophysiology and identify the molecular basis of disease, in-vitro systems to identify lead compounds for therapeutic targets, and test tubes where they build drugs from individual components. And then they take those drugs back into cell systems and animal models to demonstrate their activities.

Asked to describe a good day, Annes returns to the lab: “One of my favorite days is when I go into the lab, and a couple of my graduate students are trying to stay calm despite being exuberant about a new experimental result. I get to sit down and see what the science is, what they’ve discovered, how fulfilled, motivated, and off-the-wall happy they are by the new discovery.”

“This is one of the great joys of being in an academic institution: discovery and mentorship all in one moment.”