Dec. 16, 2004

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Contact: John Scarffe, KU Endowment Association, (785) 832-7336.

Scientist gives more than $507,500 for molecular biology professorship at KU

LAWRENCE -- A scientist who supervised all pre-clinical research at Eli Lilly and Co. for 15 years and who is a national advocate for the role of molecular biology in genetic engineering research has given more than $507,500 to endow a professorship in molecular biology at the University of Kansas.

Irving S. Johnson, who discovered a class of cancer-fighting drugs and supervised the development of Prozac, gave securities to the Kansas University Endowment Association to establish the Irving S. Johnson Professorship in Molecular Biology. The gift from the Sanibel, Fla., resident, who is best known for leading the team that produced human insulin in bacteria, will be matched through a previous gift from the Hall Family Foundation of Kansas City, Mo. The total $1 million fund will also be eligible for matching support through the Kansas Partnership for Faculty of Distinction Program.

“ This is a wonderful gift for our biosciences program,” said Chancellor Robert Hemenway. “This gift will help KU attract and retain an outstanding researcher and professor in a field that is undergoing rapid changes and expansion. The professorship will be another asset in KU's efforts to be at the forefront of life sciences research.”

Johnson earned his doctorate in zoology (developmental biology) at KU in 1953, the same year that James Watson and Francis Crick discovered “the secret of life” -- the structure of DNA -- through their molecular biology research. At the time, Johnson was conducting his own research in molecular biology. His studies focused on using immunology and biochemistry, helping him detect the proteins involved at the molecular level in the first heartbeat of embryonic chickens. Johnson said that he accomplished this even though KU did not have a large program in experimental biology. There were few mentors to help Johnson in his research.

“ That's the main reason I want to establish this professorship, so that future students will not have to go through my experience,” Johnson said. “I want KU to have the people to train students to do the things I wanted to do but that weren't supported at KU at the time. I have loved every moment of my 50-plus-year career in biomedical research and hope others will have the same opportunity, as well as make contributions to society and its well-being, and enjoy their life and career as much as I have.”

Johnson began a 35-year career with Lilly Research Laboratories at Eli Lilly and Co. when he graduated from KU. He served for 15 years as vice president of research at the company, and he directed the first program to manufacture drugs using genetic modification.

“ What we found was that genetic modification is very specific,” he said. “People feared it at first, but this technology allowed for great precision. We had to reassure people that when you cross two strains of corn, it will look like corn and taste like corn, and it won't eat Chicago.”

Johnson's research led to several discoveries, including a class of cancer drugs used to treat acute lymphocytic leukemia in children. He also conducted some of the clinical trials for the Salk polio vaccine and oversaw the discovery and the development of a class of antidepressants.

Johnson sees an exciting future for molecular biology.

“ Molecular biology's application in biomedical research is limited only by the imagination of the people who use it and by resources,” he said. “We'll someday know all the genes that turn on and off diseases, and we'll put them in bottles and call them drugs. I want to see KU have that technology, and to see it applied in areas of public health.”

An active consultant in biomedical research, Johnson serves on the boards of Ligand Pharma of San Diego, Calif., and Coastside Bio Resources in Stonington, Maine, where he and his wife, Alwyn, live half of the year.

A U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, Johnson has had a distinguished career. He was one of the nine-member U.S. delegation of the National Science Foundation that reviewed the biological effect of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. For several decades, he has been involved in public policy for science and ethics at the federal level, including a three-year term with the Recombinant Advisory Committee of the National Institutes of Health. He also was the recipient of the first annual Congressional Award in Science and Technology in 1984. At KU, he received a 2004-05 College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award.

Johnson's gift counts toward the goal of KU First: Invest in Excellence, the largest fund-raising campaign in KU history. KU Endowment is conducting KU First on behalf of KU through 2004 to raise in excess of $600 million for scholarships, fellowships, professorships, capital projects and program support. KU Endowment serves as the independent, nonprofit fund-raising and fund-management organization for KU.

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