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Meet Dr. Leslie Tari, recipient of the Faculty of Science Alumni Award 2017

Innovator. Entrepreneur.

January 19, 2017 — 

Dr. Leslie Tari, [BSc (Hons.), Chemistry/89, PhD, Chemistry/95] was working comfortably as an Assistant Professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Biological Sciences 15 years ago when he got the call that would change the trajectory of his career. Recruited to direct the Protein Crystallography Department at Syrrx Inc., a young start-up company in San Diego, Dr. Tari joined a team that developed the first high-throughput crystallization and data collection platform for single crystal X-ray crystallography.

“If you keep working at it, science will always show you a way to solve the problem. You can spend years in the weeds just plowing your way forward, but you can’t give up hope. When you get an insight or something reveals itself, and you test it, and it makes a colossal difference and moves everything forward, it’s so exciting.”

Dr. Leslie Tari

“What they endeavored to do at Syrrx was exciting enough to get me to leave Canada and an academic career I was enjoying and leap into the world of biotechnology, to participate in this revelation in my field. I helped build a technology platform that enabled us to solve a crystal structure in weeks or even days, instead of months, allowing it to become a central tool to help drive the discovery of new drugs,” says Dr. Tari, whose work at Syrrx contributed to the discovery of Alogliptin, a drug approved for the treatment of Type II diabetes.

In 2003, Dr. Tari co-founded ActiveSite, a contract research organization with a unique business model that resulted in over 500 protein structures provided to companies ranging from major multinational pharmaceuticals to small biotechnology start-ups. Later, with Trius Therapeutics, which brought a new Gram-positive spectrum antibiotic, Sivextro®, to the market, he and his team pioneered the development of antibiotics targeting bacterial DNA gyrase/topoisomerase IV, currently in late-stage preclinical development – new agents that have the potential to become the first novel class of broad spectrum antibacterial agents to enter the clinic in over 50 years.

Now the Vice President of Discovery Research at San Diego’s Cidara Therapeutics, a clinical-stage biotechnology company focused on the discovery, development, and commercialization of novel anti-infectives, Dr. Tari’s work has the potential to lead to new cures for infections caused by “super bugs” that are resistant to current antibiotics.

“My favorite part about the biotech industry is that you get these multi-disciplinary teams of highly motivated, really smart people, and you put all your minds together to solve a big problem. It’s a lot of fun,” Dr. Tari says. “The thrill I would like to have when I’m on my deathbed is that I was part of the invention of a new medicine that changes human health. That’s been my over-arching goal for many years now.”

On Thursday, January 26, 2017, Dr. Tari will receive the Faculty of Science 2017 Honoured Alumni Award for exceptional achievement in Chemistry.

Dr. Tari spoke to the Faculty of Science more about his experiences and the path his education and career have taken.

What was your strongest memory from your time studying at the U of M, Faculty of Science?

I loved my time there. It was a really warm community – the faculty cared about mentoring the students and unlocking their potential. They do some great work at the U of M, and put out really strong people.

More specifically, in my second year of studying Chemistry (which I had chosen kind of arbitrarily over Physics), I was playing in an intramural hockey game and was a line mate with a young professor, Tony Secco. After a game one day he told me about his research in X-ray crystallography, and that he studied a technique that allowed you to unlock the atomic structure of matter. I thought that was incredible. He invited me to come to his lab and see how it worked. He got me hooked, and I knew I had found my calling.

What opportunity during or after your time in the Faculty of Science helped launch your career?

I think many of us encounter a series of mentors in life that see something in you and decide unselfishly to help you move forward. Professor Tony Secco was certainly one of those for me. Later in my career it was Duncan McRee, who recruited me to join Syrrx. He was a “big wheel” in the field of structural biology, and by chance we were both studying proteins used by bacteria to steal iron from the host during infection. I managed to scoop him and determine a crystal structure of something he was working on. When he learned about that, initially he was annoyed, but when we met later at a conference he told me about the opportunity at Syrrx. He taught me a lot and helped me take my education and my career in biotechnology – shifting from academia – to the next level, really making me an expert in my discipline.

What is the most fascinating and/or engaging experience you have had during your career in science?

At Trius, we spent years trying to discover a new class of drugs to address infections caused by Gram-negative bacteria – they are very dangerous and difficult to kill. We were making these great molecules, they were binding tightly to the target, but the Gram-negative bacteria were just laughing at them. We were stalled. Then two ‘Eureka’ moments occurred – my team determined the crystal structure of a weak inhibitor bound to the target that we had passed on earlier, and it immediately revealed something we could change to boost how tightly it engaged the target. We coupled that with a second modification we learned about from our prior inhibitors and some 20-year-old literature about certain features molecules should have to help them sneak inside Gram-negative cells to get to their targets. Once we made inhibitors with both changes, overnight we suddenly had a whole new series of molecules that was working against this wide panel of bacteria – we extended the spectrum to where it had to be. It was something nobody else had ever done against this particular target, and ended a 50-year drought in the search for new classes of broad spectrum antibacterial agents. So that was really exciting.


2017 Faculty of Science Alumni Awards Event

Recognizing graduates who have made remarkable contributions to discovering the unknown, inventing the future, and advancing the well-being of society.

January, 26, 2017
Marshall McLuhan Hall (University Centre)
University of Manitoba, Fort Garry Campus
3:30 pm- 6:00 pm

The event includes a panel discussion and Q&A where our distinguished guests will share their experiences and offer advice to students about selecting areas of study, navigating career paths, and using their degrees in sometimes unconventional ways.

A reception will follow. Everyone is welcome to attend. Space is limited, so please RSVP by email to foscomms [at] umanitoba [dot] ca to secure your spot.

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