David Schenkein, Cancer Doc Turned CEO, Aims to Build New Genentech

10/16/13Follow @benthefidler

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several tennis tournaments in junior high school and even became a nationally ranked squash player after college. Schenkein’s father wanted him to carry on in the diamond business, but the son felt pulled more toward science.

“He thought it was clean, you don’t have to touch other people, and you could make a good living and support your family,” Schenkein says.

As a child, Schenkein was in awe of his pediatrician, a doctor who used to make house-calls to the family apartment. He loved solving problems, and science and math came naturally. Schenkein, along with many of his childhood friends, applied to two of the city’s top specialized science and math schools, Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School.

Schenkein got into Stuyvesant, which he calls a “science hotbed,” and with good reason. That was where he met Eric Lander, the famed mathematician-turned-biologist and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Schenkein, in fact, competed against Lander in 1974 in what used to be called the Westinghouse Science Talent Search (now known as the Intel Science Talent Search), a science competition for the top high school seniors in the U.S. Lander, a year older than Schenkein, was the clear whiz kid who dazzled and won. Schenkein was a semi-finalist, and incidentally did his Westinghouse project on metabolic enzymes, the type of biology that Agios is built on today.

Lander “wrote a one-page application and I guess he solved some theorem that mathematicians for a century had been trying to solve—he was a high school student,” Schenkein says of Lander, chuckling. “There was Eric Lander, and then the rest of us humans.”

The Stuyvesant experience helped get Schenkein hooked on science. He began spending his summers working in labs, including one at a Connecticut prep school that served as a feeder for his eventual college of choice, Wesleyan University. It was here as a chemistry undergraduate that Schenkein began to see the possibilities of what he could achieve. He designed small molecules that would inhibit a certain enzyme, and published a few papers. When he wasn’t in the lab, he blew off steam by playing squash.

“You realized that if you worked incredibly hard, that you could make things happen,” he says. “It got me really excited about setting the bar high and pushing myself.”

Schenkein wrestled with the idea of continuing on as a scientist in graduate school, but chose medical school instead because he wanted to work with people. He didn’t think he had the chops to make it in science.

Medical schools appeared to have their own doubts about Schenkein. While many friends got into Harvard, Yale, and other top programs, Schenkein got one rejection letter after another. He applied to 31 medical schools, and was rejected by 29. One school, SUNY Upstate Medical School in Syracuse, put him on a waitlist. One place accepted him. That was SUNY Buffalo.

“It was pretty humbling,” he says. “It made me wonder if I had the right stuff to be a physician.”

Schenkein drove out to Buffalo, preparing to enroll, depressed. Three days before classes began, he got an acceptance call from SUNY Upstate. He immediately got in his car and drove straight to Syracuse, leaving the cheap furniture he’d just bought for his Buffalo apartment behind. SUNY Upstate had a solid reputation, and he wasn’t going to waste the opportunity.

SUNY Upstate was where Schenkein decided to be a doctor, and as he says, “dug in extra hard” to prove himself. An attending physician, Paul Cohen, became Schenkein’s mentor, and encouraged him to apply for a residency at Tufts Medical Center, one of the centers of top-notch patient care in Boston.

Schenkein, however, couldn’t even get an interview. Driven to go there regardless, Schenkein came to Boston to interview for a different residency, and walked over to Tufts right after, dressed in a suit. He walked in, with no appointment, asked for an interview.

“The woman who was running the group looked at me like I had 12 heads,” he says.

It was a brazen act, but the director of Tufts’ internship program agreed to meet anyway. Schenkein waited for an hour to meet Marshall Kaplan, and handed him his resume.

“He looked down at the bottom of the resume and said, ‘Wow, you’re ranked No. 2 in the United States in [Men’s B] squash,” Schenkein recalls, pointing to a certificate that hangs in his Agios office today. “He said, ‘I was nationally ranked and I play squash all the time.’ And for 40 minutes, we talked about squash. And I got in.”

At Tufts, Schenkein began working in hematology under doctors and mentors Jane Desforges (the former president of the American Society of Hematology) and Robert Schwartz. He did a three-and-a-half year fellowship at Tufts working in a molecular virology lab. Schenkein was comfortable at Tufts, eventually took over Desforges’ practice, and spent more than a decade building … Next Page »

Ben Fidler is Xconomy's Deputy Biotechnology Editor. You can e-mail him at bfidler@xconomy.com Follow @benthefidler

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