He came from a family of engineers—his father, several uncles and cousins, and a brother. He became absorbed with science and won first place in a national science competition at age 16. He graduated from Harvard College at age 20. He developed molecules that could track and control the levels of calcium inside cells while attending Cambridge University. He later became a professor of physiology at UC Berkeley.
In 1989, Roger Tsien relocated to San Diego, became a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and has taught and conducted research at UC San Diego ever since. As a professor of pharmacology, chemistry, and biochemistry, Tsien describes his life’s work as “building molecules to look inside of cells, allowing us to see beyond what the human eye can see.” In 2008 the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Tsien the most coveted prize in science, announcing that, “the impact of his groundbreaking success in the development of colorful, glowing dyes and proteins to track cellular behavior has earned him the Nobel Prize.”
Yet there is much more. As an inventor and entrepreneur at UC San Diego, Tsien has made over 40 invention disclosures and is an inventor for 80 issued U.S. and foreign patents. These translate into products that provide a wide variety of valuable research tools for the scientific community. Using Tsien’s technologies, Invitrogen, a division of Life Technologies Corporation, has developed over 100 products, including kits for gene labeling and detection, expression vectors, and live-cell imaging.
General Electric (GE) Corporation has utilized the same green fluorescent-protein technology as Life Technologies. This has enabled GE–and the biotech and pharmaceutical companies that license from them –to develop a variety of products and tools for drug-discovery research.
Clontech Laboratories is another commercial development partner that has created products based on Tsien’s research. The company has launched thirteen expression-vector products based on red fluorescent protein variants. With product names such as: mBanana, mCherry, mOrange, mPlum, mRaspberry, mStrawberry, and mTomato, they are collectively known as Clontech’s Living Colors® Fruit Fluorescent Proteins.
In addition, Tsien’s early research discoveries were crucial to the formation of two startup companies. The first was Aurora Biosciences Corporation, whose focus was high-throughput screening for drug discovery. When investors asked early on if Tsien was willing to be CEO, he declined, stating it was not “within my talents,” but he continued as lead scientific advisor. Clearly, Tsien knew how to best utilize his talent. Aurora went public in 1997, was included in the Russell 5000 (the next tier down from the Fortune 500), and in 2001 was acquired by Vertex Pharmaceuticals for more than $500 million.
Tsien was also involved in a second startup—Senomyx, Incorporated—a company that uses taste-receptor technology to improve food and beverage nutrition while maintaining (or enhancing) taste. Tsien co-founded this company with his UC San Diego colleague, Charles Zuker. Both currently serve as members of Senomyx’s scientific advisory board, providing guidance on research and development activities and serving as scientific and technical advisors.
Tsien is a man who wears many hats. He’s professor and mentor to many former and current undergraduate and graduate students and post-doctoral researchers. He’s a corporate advisor. He’s a researcher and inventor. Some of his current projects revolve around new technologies that use dyes and drugs to specifically target cancer cells, thus surgeons can remove tumors more accurately and eradicate any leftover (malignant) cells.
At age 57, Roger Tsien has already accomplished a great deal.
While he and his colleagues proudly accept their Nobel recognition, their interest and commitment to science doesn’t stop there. One has to wonder, “What will he invent next?”