Richard Lerner, MD, a scientic pioneer who developed technologies that had a major impact on science and medicine, and who played a critical role in shaping Scripps Research and San Diego’s burgeoning life sciences sector, passed away on December 2, 2021. He was 83 years old.
“Richard had a tremendous influence on science, the institute, and the lives and work of many of us at Scripps Research,” says Peter Schultz, PhD, President and CEO of Scripps Research and a longtime collaborator with Lerner. “He was truly a giant and his vision, leadership and passion for science will be deeply missed.”
A Stanford-trained physician-scientist, Lerner served as Director and President of Scripps Research from 1987 through 2012. During his tenure, Scripps Research established a Florida campus and launched the institute’s bicoastal graduate school, now named the Skaggs Graduate School of Chemical and Biological Sciences. With its interdisciplinary research focus, the school soon ranked among the top 10 graduate programs of its kind in the U.S.
“Richard’s fearlessness and bold ideas propelled Scripps Research to its current stature as one of the world’s leading biomedical research institutes,” says Schultz, who authored a tribute to his colleague published in January 2022 in Science.
Paul Schimmel, PhD, a professor in the institute’s Department of Molecular Medicine, says Lerner infused the institute with an esprit de corps that invigorated the science. “We felt we were with him on a non-stop adventure,” says Schimmel, “like pioneers of the Old West, who would transform medical research and its associated graduate education.”
Lerner also recruited an impressive cadre of scientists to La Jolla in fields ranging from structural and computational biology to immunology and molecular medicine, and also established the institute’s now top-ranked Department of Chemistry.
Scripps Research chemistry professor K. Barry Sharpless, PhD, who Lerner recruited in 1991, says Lerner provided a remarkable environment for the institute’s researchers. “He just hired us and said ‘I will support you, do your thing,’” says Sharpless, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. “That was something rare in a leader.”
Lerner was known as a highly creative and interdisciplinary scientist and his lab produced numerous impactful discoveries and technologies. Among more than 400 published works, his achievements include the development of synthetic peptide vaccines, catalytic antibodies, and combinatorial antibody and DNA-encoded chemical libraries—innovations that are used by academic and industry laboratories worldwide.
His work paved the way to widely used novel therapeutics including the arthritis drug HUMIRA® and the lupus treatment, Benlysta. “He was a visionary,” says Sharpless. “He saw what chemistry could do for medicine and biology.”
Highly entrepreneurial, Lerner was an early advocate of pushing new basic research discoveries and technologies toward their useful and practical applications in the marketplace. He cultivated relationships between academia and industry at a time when such partnerships were unusual. His boundary-crossing ideas helped establish Scripps Research—and the entire San Diego science sector—into the global hub for translational research and entrepreneurship that it is today.
Originally from Chicago, Lerner received his bachelor’s degree from Stanford University in 1959 and his medical degree from Stanford’s School of Medicine in 1964. After finishing medical school, he interned for a year at Stanford Hospital, then accepted a postdoctoral fellowship in 1965 in the Department of Experimental Pathology at Scripps Research, known at the time as the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation. After his fellowship, he joined the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia where he conducted research for a year before returning to Scripps Research as a faculty member in 1970.
In 1987 Lerner was named President of the institute. He served in that position for 25 years, during which time the institute’s research operations grew substantially, including nearly tripling its laboratory space. Scripps Research attracted some of the world’s top scientific talent during his tenure, including several Nobel laureates.
In 2012, Lerner was appointed as the Founding Director of the Shanghai Institute for Advanced Immunochemical Studies at Shanghai Tech University, Shanghai, China. In this capacity he recruited world scientific leaders to implement the institute’s strategic focus, as well as directed research in his own laboratory.
He received numerous honors over his career, including the Wolf Prize in Chemistry, California Scientist of the Year Award, the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize, the Windhaus Medal, and the Prince of Asturias Award. He was an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and received honorary degrees from Oxford University, Ben-Gurion University, Northwestern University, Karolinska Institute and Florida Atlantic University.
“He was a visionary. He saw what chemistry could do for medicine and biology.”-K. Barry Sharpless, PhD
He held positions on many boards of directors, including Kraft Foods, Sequenom, OPKO Health, Intra-Cellular Therapies and Teva Pharmaceuticals, and served on the scientific advisory boards of 5AM Ventures, Bay City Capital and Sorrento Therapeutics. Lerner also served on the editorial boards of many high-impact scientific journals.
A longtime resident of La Jolla, Lerner is survived by his wife, Nicky, and three children, Danica, Arik and Aaron. The family has requested that in lieu of flowers remembrances be made to the Richard Lerner Memorial Fund for Professional Development at Scripps Research. For more information about the fund, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.