October 16, 2018

Biotech pioneer Steitz remembered

Yale University
Yale University
Thomas A. Steitz.

New Haven bioscience pioneer and Nobel prize-winner Thomas A. Steitz, 78, died at his Branford home from pancreatic cancer on Oct. 9. Steitz was remembered as a path-breaking chemist for his work on the ribosome, the cell's protein-making factory, as well as his role in the establishment of a New Haven biopharmaceutical company.

"Utilizing techniques and knowledge in chemistry, biochemistry, biophysics and computational science, he elucidated the biochemical mechanisms by which the information stored in DNA is translated into the expression of proteins in cells. His discoveries have been critical to the creation of drugs that combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria," Yale President Peter Salovey said of Steitz in a statement.

With Yale colleagues Peter Moore and Don Engelman, Steitz worked to map the atomic structure of the ribosome using high-resolution X-ray crystallography. In 2000, Steitz and Moore founded Rib-X Pharmaceuticals at 300 George St. in New Haven to design new antibiotics based on their research.

"[Steitz] in particular was deeply passionate about applying this atomic understanding about how antibiotics work to creating new ones," said Susan Froshauer, co-founding president and CEO of Rib-X from 2000 to 2011. "These atomically 'designed' drugs would kill bacteria resistant to today's drugs – a very serious medical problem."

Steitz and his team drew support in their venture from the existing New Haven and state biotech community, developer Carter Winstanley, the law firm of Wiggin and Dana, Connecticut Innovations Inc. and others to build their company near Yale, Froshauer said.

"Tom and Peter knew it would be critical to establish Rib-X in facilities near their lab, to ensure critical scientific exchange and also to encourage Yale postdocs and students to seek to become employees," Froshauer said.

Steitz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2009 for his work on the structure and function of the ribosome.

Rib-X announced a "strategic realignment" in 2013 and changed its name to Melinta Therapeutics. As the company evolved, Steitz assumed more of an oversight role, he told the Yale Daily News in 2016, hiring executive staff, interacting with investors and later working as a consultant.

Contact Liese Klein at lklein@newhavenbiz.com

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