On September 30, 2016, Prothena’s Co-founder, President and Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Dale B. Schenk, passed away, after confronting pancreatic cancer with the same courage, determination and humor that pervaded all areas of his life.
Dale began his career as a researcher and pioneered the immunotherapeutic approach for the treatment of amyloidosis, as exemplified by Alzheimer’s disease. His work in this area — as well as in early detection, testing and other pathways to the — disease led to the most advanced potential treatments for this devastating disease.
His innovative methods of understanding neurological diseases and developing potential therapies have shaped new approaches in the pharmaceutical industry as a whole, prompting many companies to expand their research and development efforts into new avenues. Dale inspired and positively impacted dozens of scientists throughout his career — a fact that’s powerfully illustrated by the number of people who continued to work with him as he moved to new roles and companies.
Dale’s approach to research was characterized by creativity and determination — and under his leadership at Prothena, he and his team advanced a new class of protein immunotherapies that seek to fight devastating diseases including Parkinson’s disease and AL amyloidosis.
His spirit of collaboration was at the core of his impact; while many scientists seek to hold their findings close, Dale was always committed to scientific exchange; publishing his work and encouraging colleagues to do the same. He fundamentally believed in the old adage that a rising tide lifts all boats, and that this is especially true in the challenging arena of new drug development that requires many great minds working together (or competitively) towards the goal of better therapies for patients.
As president and CEO of Prothena, he led the advancement of a late-stage clinical pipeline of novel immunotherapies that address protein misfolding and cell adhesion — the root causes of many serious or currently untreatable amyloid and inflammatory diseases. He assumed this role in 2012, when Prothena emerged from Elan through a spinoff of key drug discovery assets.
Before joining Prothena, Dale was executive vice president and chief scientific officer of Elan, where he provided scientific direction for all of the company’s research and development programs. Notably, he was the lead researcher on Elan’s experimental vaccine designed to fight Alzheimer’s, with groundbreaking work that earned him the coveted Potamkin Prize from the American Academy of Neurology (AAN). When he won the award, it was the first time that the honor had been bestowed on an industry scientist — typically the Potamkin Prize is reserved for academic researchers only. He was also awarded the Rita Hayworth Medical Honoree Award and has also been the recipient of the Senator William Proxmire Award for extraordinary contribution to Alzheimer’s disease. Prior to Elan, he was a founding scientist of Athena Neurosciences Inc., which was acquired by Elan in 1996. Dale earned his B.A. and Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Physiology from the University of California, San Diego.
Blind Alleys and Outrageous Ideas
Much of science and biotechnology research involves going down blind alleys, hoping for a breakthrough. When his team’s Alzheimer’s research started gaining steam at Athena Neurosciences in the early 1990s, they took significant risks and came up with breakthrough ideas that were considered highly unconventional at the time.
There were precious few Alzheimer’s animal models, leading to much debate on the team’s ability to pursue one of his more off-the-wall ideas: using immunotherapy to treat the disease. When this approach was put to the test, everyone was surprised to see that it prevented and reversed many of the changes in the brain that were hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.
This transgenic mouse-model research led to a cover story in Nature in 1992, sparking excitement throughout the industry. Once the story became public, it was only a matter of time for the approach to take hold.
At Prothena, Dale continued to gain the respect of his peers not only because he was a brilliant scientist with a history of smart and science-led business decision-making, but also due to his positive attitude and his openness to being challenged. These are traits that he carried with him throughout his career. He was, quite simply, a terrific person to be around — lauded for his wide scientific knowledge and admired for his personality. He believed that having a positive outlook is particularly important in science, where there are dozens of failed experiments for every successful one.
As a scientist and an executive, Dale was always motivated by the ultimate goal of helping patients. When he was young, he saw how Alzheimer’s affected his grandmother and other people he knew in the community. So when deciding to go into science rather than professionally pursue his love of piano, he did so for the potential to make a lasting impact on patients’ lives.
Dale was a driving force in the life science industry, and exemplified the qualities of a true visionary leader. He has inspired a whole new field of research around immunotherapy for progressive degenerative disease, and never ceased in the pursuit of finding new scientific solutions to obstacles that stand in the way of a cure.
His impact on the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry will shape drug development for decades to come, and his impact on the lives he touched will inspire us forever.