Biochemistry Tool-Maker Roger Tsien Looks for the Pass Through the Mountains (Update: Tsien Wins Nobel Prize)

Updated, Oct. 8, 5 am PST: Roger Tsien was not only on the short list for the Nobel Prize in chemistry—he won it! See below for more details:

Was it me, or did researchers’ heads whip around yesterday as I walked through Roger Tsien’s biochemistry laboratory at U.C. San Diego?

If there was an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation in Tsien’s lab, it’s not necessarily because Xconomy has arrived in San Diego. (We launched the San Diego site Monday). Tsien had never heard of Xconomy, and he studied my business card—which consisted of “” handwritten on the back of another business card—with an expression of…apprehension.

A more likely explanation for all the electricity in the air is that my friend David Pendlebury, who handicaps the Nobel prizes for Thomson Reuters Scientific, put the 56-year-old Tsien on his short list for this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Pendlebury, who bases his predictions on scientific citations of “high-impact papers,” also put Harvard’s Charles M. Lieber and Carnegie Mellon’s Krzysztof Matyjaszewski on his short list. The announcement in Stockholm by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is scheduled for today.

Tsien, who was funny and self-deprecating, explained how his research led to the development of “fluorescent proteins” that have become a valuable new tool used in labs around the world for studying cellular activity.

A variety of fluorescent proteins and similar tools that Tsien and his colleagues developed now allow academic researchers to study changes in cellular acidity, calcium, oxidation reduction, and cyclic AMP, among other things.

But after developing a new technique and demonstrating one or two new applications in molecular biology, Tsien says he often moves on to other uncharted realms. He compared himself to John C. Fremont, the frontier pathfinder “who finds the pass but who is not the homesteading type.”

At another moment, he fatalistically compared his illustrious career to Woody Allen’s, saying, “I’m doomed to be this sort of comedic guy who just makes tools.”

Yet Tsien’s work led to the creation of San Diego’s Aurora Biosciences Corp., which developed new technologies for ultra-high screening of molecules as potential drug candidates. (Seed funding for Tsien’s startup came from Avalon Ventures, a San Diego venture firm headed by Kevin Kinsella.)

Tsien said his early investors “asked me if I was interested in being CEO, and it took me about two milliseconds to say no.” He has no interest in managing a business, and says, “It’s completely not within my talents.”

The value of his work was demonstrated, though, when Vertex Pharmaceuticals acquired Aurora in 2001 for more than $500 million. Tsien said his screening techniques also are used by San Diego’s Invitrogen, which supplies products and services to laboratories, and Senomyx, a San Diego biotech developing taste receptor technologies to discover novel flavors, and taste enhancers and modulators.

All of this might lead to a Nobel Prize for Tsien, or perhaps not. But a Woody Allen quote comes to mind.
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work,” he said. “I want to achieve it through not dying.”

Update, Oct. 8: The Nobel Prize committee today announced that Tsien will share the chemistry prize equally with fellow Americans Martin Chalfie of Columbia University and Osamu Shimomura, who is with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, and Boston University Medical School.

The prize carries with it a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor, just over $1.4 million, which will be shared equally by the winners.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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One response to “Biochemistry Tool-Maker Roger Tsien Looks for the Pass Through the Mountains (Update: Tsien Wins Nobel Prize)”

  1. Kim says:

    Nice writeup, Bruce! And what great timing too. Congratulations to Tsien.

    Now go to Kinko’s or something and work on those business cards…