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(C) Syngenta 2012 - Sandro Alejandro AruffoObituary: Sandro Aruffo
- Life dedicated to diversity of science

Wolf G Kroner

“I came to the lab thinking this is a Harvard lab where people are very serious about their research. I wore a white lab coat, thinking that it was the appropriate thing to do. As I walked in, I saw a curious looking guy, a little younger than me with a beard, T-shirt, shorts and sneekers – working with a huge beaker filled with water and containing what looked like a bicycle chain. And sure enough, there were pieces of a bike in his bay in the lab and I thought: What is this guy doing here? This is a research lab. What is he doing fixing a bike? And he said: Ah, you must be looking for Brian Seed. I said: Yes I am... At first I thought I was in the wrong place, but I knew I wasn’t in the wrong place.” The first encounter of Ivan Stamenkovic with Sandro Aruffo lasted his lifetime. His closest friend shared with him the culture of science, a deep quest for knowledge, a willingness to work Monday through Saturday year by year, and a delicate contempt for persons who give themselves airs.


Dr Alejandro Antonio Aruffo, Syngenta’s Global Head of Research and Development passed away at the age of 53 end of January. His scientific track record is impressive. As a graduate student, he worked on an idea his mentor, Brian Seed, had had and developed a new expression cloning technique that revolutionized gene isolation (1) at the time. Subsequently, in nearly two hundred scientific publications he made a major impact on cell surface antigen research, particularly in the field of immunology. Many of his discoveries remain valuable IP for the pharmaceutical companies he worked with. His scientific work is the convergence of technologies targeted toward development of recombinant molecules with therapeutic applications and their manufacturing for pharmaceutical use. Throughout his career he insisted that to optimally grow, commercial biotechnology should never sacrifice conducting basic scientific research of its own. In his case the focus was on basic immunological mechanisms. In Syngenta most visible is how he catalyzed the company’s R&D by concentrating plant bioscience at Research Triangle Park and pushing the set-up of satellites in emerging countries. He also provided for stronger interaction between the chemicals and bioscience business lines (see also: Sandro Aruffo’s Syngenta Legacy (2)). Throughout his lifetime he was a wanderer between the worlds of business and science, pharmaceuticals and agrichemicals. His life’s work documents the dedication to support the diversity of science in different expressions across the globe.

Science with pluri-cultural sensitivity
(C) Wolf G Kroner 2010 - Sandro AruffoSandro Aruffo was born July 9 1959 in Mexico where he spent his youth. His parents were Italian and that is why he liked to be called “Sandro” which is the colloquial name for “Alessandro”. He was proud of his European origins and kept his Italian nationality, adopting citizenship of the United States only later when he married his American wife. Sandro liked sports, for example cross-country skiing, but his most favourite ones were biking and rowing. Indeed, one might ask in retrospect, what would have happened, if he would have been at the center stage during the Olympic Games in Montréal. In 1976 he was a member of the Mexican reserve rowing team for the Olympics.

In 1978 he began his studies at the University of Washington where he graduated in 1982 with a B.Sc. in chemistry and mathematics. After that he moved to the newly opened Research Laboratory of Brian Seed, who his Professor of Genetics at Harvard and Founder of the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology at the Massachusetts General Hospital. The laboratory was a living space of its own. Members arrived early and left late, doing research six days a week with few holidays during the year, Martine Amiot remembers. She is an academic researcher at Institut de recherche en cancérologie Nantes Atlantique in France. “When I came to Brian Seed’s Lab as post-doctoral researcher in 1988, I hardly spoke any English and he helped me very much to become familiar with life at Boston, because he spoke very well French.” He was multilingual and his caring attitude helped the many newcomers to integrate well into research groups throughout his life. In 1988 he obtained his Ph.D. in Biophysics from Harvard University. While looking for an attractive position he continued post-doctoral work at Boston. As biophysicist he wanted to do crystallograpy with a particular interest in surface molecules in lymphocytes. However crystallography was considered high-risk at the time and he did not get the permanent job he was asking for.

Even Number One is but a number
(C) Wolf G Kroner 2010 - Sandro AruffoThe opportunity came when Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) divested Genetic Systems to Sanofi early in 1990. BMS retained the non-diagnostic part of the Oncogen joint venture and converted the Genetic Systems site at Seattle (State of Washington) into its “BMS Pharmaceutical Research Institute” (PRI), a subsidiary dedicated to cancer and immunology research. Several people were instrumental to bring him there among them Ron Stenkamp, Professor for Crystallography and Molecules, and Jeff Ledbetter, already working at PRI. He is today Professor of Rheumatology both at the University of Washington. Dr Ledbetter had visited him at Brian Seed’s Lab in Harvard and convinced him he would get what he was looking for at Seattle. In addition this place offered to him ample opportunities for outdoor activities like cross-country skiing, settling down and founding a family. The family of his wife lived in the neighbourhood and both were happy to return to Washington.

Seattle was the center of his life for the next seven years. It was a happy time for him both as scientist and as father of a family. He was a prolific researcher. It was here in a suburb of the town that his children were born. However most at PRI barely knew his private life. He did not talk much about himself. He seldom joined a party. He felt uncomfortable in social situations like that colleagues recall. “We talked a lot of science that’s really what I remember about him” says Peter Linsley, principal investigator of another PRI group. “He was a very confident scientist and very confident scientific speaker. I don’t think you would detect that he was quite a shy person from seeing him as a scientist” Jeff Ledbetter resumes. At the time he and Dr Linsley were working on what later led to abatacept, the recombinant CTLA-4-Immunoglobulin drug (trade name:”Orencia”) now used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. It was a competitive and fertile environment for doing basic research and Aruffo’s work soon received the attention and resources to expand his activities. Research at PRI was West Coast style. They enjoyed the resources and their freedom. “We were far enough away from New Jersey that we were able to make our own decisions about our projects” one former colleague describes work at PRI. People were casually dressed and only when they had to report to BMS at New Jersey headquarters they squeezed themselves into a suit. However they delayed such a formality as long as they could. Thus on one occasion, Jeff Ledbetter recalls, he, Sandro, Peter Linsley and Peter Kiener took a night flight to the East Coast. When they parked their rent-a-car at a deserted parking area early in the morning they were rousted by the police, because these four chaps aroused suspicion changing cloths in public, getting out of jeans and T-shirts to appear in a suit.

Aruffo was a throroughbred scientist and soon after joining PRI he was provided by management more resources, a larger group and increased responsibilities. In 1997 BMS decided to close its Seattle subsidiary and repatriate research to New Jersey. There was a surge of protest and several high-profile researchers left PRI, because “this very science-oriented culture was turned into high-throughput machinery” Jürgen Bajorath remembers and adds “I never would have imagined Sandro would go to corporate management.” Today Dr. Bajorath is Professor of Life Science Informatics at Bonn University pursuing an academic career as many others accompanying Aruffo at PRI. Bajorath became friends with Sandro after he joined the Seattle subsidiary in 1991 and retained close relations with him until his untimely death. When Dr Aruffo followed Bristol-Myers Squibb to headquarters he belonged to strategically important groups. He was treated as “Number One” and was promoted to Vice President Immunology Drug Discovery in 1998. It was a break in his life leaving experimental resarch and colleagues at Seattle. A few broke off relations. At PRI these felt like

Sandro betraying their shared scientific ideals as well as their community. One collaborator even admitted not having spoken to him for several years, because Aruffo sacrificed the bench for “those idiots on the East Coast”. Most people asked agree that he was not the typical pharma manager, but this was the reason why he accepted BMS’ offer. “Let’s this trying! It’s something new” he told to his closest friend Ivan Stamenkovic who is Professor of Experimental Pathology and Director of the Institut universitaire de pathologie de Lausanne.

Promises and Hopes of Hands-on Research
(C) Wolf G Kroner 2010 - Sandro AruffoSoon Aruffo’s excitement soon cooled down in his new position with BMS. A few years later Abbott lured him away with prospects of co-ordinating and shaping worldwide corporate research. It was even more attractive, as Abbott had businesses spanning across diverse fields of application: not just pharmaceuticals or diagnostics, but also medical devices and nutrition. IT appeared to be the right moment to leave BMS. In 2001 Abbott had acquired BASF Bioresearch Corporation at Worcester, Massachusetts. Dr Aruffo entered as its new Vice President of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disease Drug Discovery, but shortly thereafter he was nominated President of Abbott Bioresearch Center (today AbbVie Bioresearch Center Inc.). His authority was underlined when his name and powers were entered into the state company register in February 2002. Initially Abbott had promised that he could stay in the region which was to allow him staying close to his wife and children at the stages of kindergarden resp. elementary school. After their recent re-location from State of Washington the Aruffo’s wanted to avoid moving again at a time critical for their offspring. However research was done at Worcester while decisions were made at Abbott Biosearch’s principal office in Chicago. In 2005 he became Vice President of Global Pharmaceutical Development and had to spend a lot of time at headquarters in addition to the many business trips. So, contrary to its initial plans the family had to move again, this time to Illinois.

You can’t keep a good man down
It was around that time when Sandro Aruffo felt that something went wrong with his health. His eye was tearing, but for a long time the many doctors he consulted could not tell him what it was. When Aruffo finally was diagnosed a rare kind of head and neck cancer, he had to undergo surgery to remove the tumour and thereafter several reconstructive medical interventions. Drugs weren’t helpful. Chemotherapy became a part of his daily life. He scheduled therapy to fit his professional agenda. He dealt with that ordeal in a prudent way peculiar to his personality. To his worried friends he used to say: “Well, these things happen. It’s part of my life routine, so I’m just gonna deal with it.” And indeed, for some time it looked like therapy was successful and the tumour had gone.

Abbott like Bristol-Myers Squibb was not the company which satisfied Sandro Aruffo’s aspirations to global research and a life close to his beloved wife and children. When asked in February 2010 and some ten months after taking over from his successor about the difference between Syngenta’s culture and his former company he told this author: “Abbott is international, but decisions were made in Chicago. Syngenta is truly global. If you were to go to Basel to know what’s happening in Syngenta’s R&D, you would just have a small piece as Syngenta is in many places over the world and decisions are truly made on a global basis” (2).


Back to the Roots
For a while Sandro Aruffo pondered retreating. But he was still under the age of fifty and felt too energetic to lead the idle life of a well-to-do pensioner. Moreover, around 2007/2008 jobs were not anymore abundantly available in the pharmaceutical industry due to the worldwide recession. At one point he picked up on a cherished desire: Living in Europe home to his parents and ancestors. He was particularly fond of Switzerland. As a young boy he had spent many holidays there with his parents and sister. Later he often visited his aunt at Lausanne. However there were no jobs with Novartis or Roche at Basel which matched his position with Abbott. Then he was introduced by a friend to Syngenta which was looking for a successor for Dr David Lawrence who planned to retire in April 2009.

(C) Wolf G Kroner 2010 - Sandro Alejandro AruffoIn September 2008 he officially joined the Swiss agro-company as Head of Global Research and Development. This decision again changed his career and private life. He embarked again upon a new field. While he remained with R&D, the applications sought were in agriculture not medicine. While he was familiar with technologies, the most prominent ones of Syngenta were in plant genetics and agrichemicals. The new targets were not humans or human diseases, but plants, pathogens or output traits. Soon the family moved from Illinois to Basel.

Syngenta has been quite taciturn about its deceased Global Head of R&D. Asked by B2Bioworld why Dr Aruffo did not show up in court registries of Switzerland (as is his predecessor) as well as in the United States Syngenta did not reply. The press release (3) announcing his death had barely eight lines and was not followed up to date in the company’s website. Robert Berendes who was one of his closest colleagues and is Head of R&D ad interim did not respond to an invitation to comment the untimely death of Sandro Aruffo.
From what people close to him tell his cancer came back very early in 2012. While he worked hard not neglecting his duties, he spent more time with his family during his time off. Towards his colleagues he was reserved, but kept his warm personality. His family was worried when his health dramatically worsened. To close friends he told in his characteristic style: “Don’t worry, guys. It’ll soon be okay again. We’ll see each other at Thanksgiving.” They did not see him again. When his body did not respond anymore to medical treatment he finally had to take leave in October. End of January 2013 he succumbed to the deadly attack. He leaves his wife, son (17) and daughter (20), but the traces he leaves continue to impact R&D and profits of Bristol-Myers Squibb, Abbott, as well as of Syngenta for years to come.

References
(1) Aruffo AA (1988): Characterization of cDNAs encoding T cell lineage antigens isolated by transient expression and rescue from COS cells. Thesis Harvard University.
(2) B2Bioworld (2013): Sandro Aruffo’s Syngenta Legacy. The Former Head of R&D and Robert Berendes, Head of Business Development in a conversation with Wolf Kroner in 2010. February.
(3) Syngenta January 28, 2013: ”Management Announcement” http://www.syngenta.com/global/corporate/SiteCollectionDocuments/pdf/media-releases/en/20130128-en-management-announcement.pdf.

 

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