H3 Biomedicine, which chemistry alumnus Gregg Keaney joined as sixth employee, now occupies 48,000 square feet of brand-new lab space in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has 70 workers, and gets $200 million in research funding from Eisai, a global pharmaceutical company based in Japan.
In a sense, Eisai is where Keaney’s career started, back in his college days.
“While a junior at Tufts University, I had an internship at Eisai which gave me the opportunity to work with a team of organic chemists on the total synthesis of a anti-cancer natural product. I became really interested in synthetic organic chemistry — the study of the bond-by-bond construction of a molecule from commercially-available starting materials — and its role in the drug discovery process. It was that internship that inspired me to pursue a graduate degree in organic chemistry and ultimately a career in cancer drug discovery.
“My mentor during that internship at Eisai was a Yale College graduate, Edward (Ted) Suh, and he suggested that I look into the research of one Yale faculty member in particular, John L. Wood.” Wood’s laboratory focused on the total synthesis of structurally-complex natural products using synthetic organic chemistry, which is exactly what Keaney wanted to do.
He joined Wood’s research group in 2000 and completed his PhD five years later with a dissertation titled “Synthetic Studies on the Kalihinane Diterpenoids.” The project involved the synthesis of kalihinol C, a natural product isolated from a marine sponge that demonstrated potent activity against a malaria parasite. “It took several years to determine the optimal sequence of synthetic steps required to install the correct atom connections and bond orientations to produce the three-dimensional structure of kalihinol C,” he recalls. Along the way, he also developed a new rhodium catalyst for a chemical transformation known as an aziridination.
“My adviser was a wonderful mentor. He provided a lot of suggestions for our job talks for industrial interviews. He always emphasized the importance of delivering a clear message and being able to communicate the science effectively to a wide range of audiences. That advice has helped me a lot in a variety of roles since Yale.
“The camaraderie within the Wood group and the Yale Chemistry Department was great,” he says, and he was an active participant, chairing the 2001 Bristol-Myers Squibb Research Symposium and serving as the departmental representative in the Graduate Student Assembly and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate.
He had fun, too. He played intramural softball against other Yale departments and participated in the annual New England Regional Chemistry Softball Tournament as well. He enjoyed living in the East Rock neighborhood and attending the Pilot Pen tennis tournament (now the New Haven Open at Yale) every August. And he met his wife, Erin (Pusateri) Keaney, who was also studying chemistry. She received her PhD in 2006 from Andrew D. Hamilton’s research group and now works at Novartis Institutes of BioMedical Research in Cambridge.
Following graduation, Keaney took a position at Infinity Pharmaceuticals, where he worked on several cancer-focused drug discovery programs. After six years, he decided he was ready for a new challenge and joined H3 Biomedicine. As Senior Scientific Investigator at H3 Biomedicine, he currently leads a medicinal chemistry team whose goal is to make molecules to target cancer cells, which have a mutation in a gene known as SF3B1. Keaney guides the chemistry analog effort and coordinates activities with colleagues in cell biology, biochemistry, and drug safety functions. In addition, he manages scientists and helped to design an expansion to H3 Biomedicine’s chemistry lab space.
“It is exciting to be part of a startup environment where you wear many hats while the operation gets off the ground. I love working at small companies, because I’m able to feel the impact of my accomplishments immediately,” he says.
Keaney shared his enthusiasm when he spoke at a career mentoring workshop in May. He stays connected to Yale and was elected to serve on the Graduate School Alumni Association Executive Committee. Both Gregg and his wife Erin have volunteered for the Yale Day of Service and organized a Yale Club of Boston event for alumni in the biotechnology industry.