Trying to Solve the Cancer Puzzle with Saul Rosenberg, Ph.D.

A desire to tackle the complex challenge of discovering new drugs for patients has fueled a 31-year career with many contributions to cancer research.

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People Profile: Saul Rosenberg has been involved in AbbVie’s oncology research since it began two decades ago.

“Scientists in general are puzzle solvers and they want to figure out how things work,” says Saul Rosenberg, Ph.D., senior director of oncology research at AbbVie.

“What we do in drug discovery is really hard. There’s not much that’s more complicated than a cell, especially in the context of a whole organism, and figuring out how to selectively affect that cell creates some of the coolest problems that we can tackle.”
 
Rosenberg began his AbbVie career in the early 1980s. After getting his undergraduate degree in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley.
 
He then made his way to the Chicago area, and 31 years later, Rosenberg’s contributions to the field of cancer research are numerous, having given rise to the discovery of multiple anti-cancer compounds.
 

Starting from scratch

When Rosenberg started though, the company did not have a focus on oncology. In fact, Rosenberg and his colleagues were tasked with building the drug discovery organization from the ground up.
 
“We had to be willing to try things to see what worked and what didn’t,” Rosenberg says. The experience of building something new was exciting to Rosenberg because of the many different challenges it offered.
 
In the case of cancer, it was and continues to be an extremely complex challenge for researchers. At the time the group formed, AbbVie and many others, both in industry and academia, were interested in the field, but not a lot was known about cancer biology or what the right disease targets would be.
 
The failure of early compounds to show strong anti-cancer activity in clinical trials helped bring a clearer focus to research efforts. “We knew we had to demand strong, robust activity, and so we looked for targets that were absolutely essential to the tumor cell,” Rosenberg says.
 

Apoptosis

This is when Rosenberg and his team began their work in apoptosis, the normal process by which cells die. “All cells eventually die or are replaced when they are no longer needed, but cancer cells have evolved mechanisms to get around that process,” he says.
 
Rosenberg’s team decided to focus on a particular protein family that had a known role in blocking cell death. For nearly 20 years, they have been making important advances that have led to a better understanding of the role of these proteins in preventing apoptosis from occurring in cancer cells.
 
“Starting a program is like beginning to climb a mountain where you can’t see the peak – you know it’s going to be challenging, but the question is how challenging,” Rosenberg says. “Now we’re at a wonderful place where we can start to look at how broadly we may be able to help patients.”
 
Rosenberg has authored nearly 140 publications in peer reviewed journals, has spoken at numerous international scientific conferences and is a named inventor on 28 patents. In 2015, Rosenberg was honored by the AbbVie Community of Science as the Outstanding Researcher of the Year.

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Jaquelin Finley
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