By Jim Stafford
Copyright © 2014, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
Larry Kennedy subscribes to the random walk theory of scientific discovery.
There is something special to Kennedy about walking down the hallways at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and talking science with a colleague. That’s been part of his job for the past 16 years as OMRF’s vice president for technology transfer.
Kennedy catches up on the latest discoveries from chance meetings in the halls, sits in on scientific seminars and crashes departmental meetings — all with a purpose.
The walks, the seminars and the meetings keep him in touch with the foundation’s emerging research, helping him identify discoveries with the best potential to do the greatest good for people with life-threatening or crippling illnesses.
“If you love science and you can walk-in and participate in discussions on the cutting edge of science, how much better can it get?” he said. “The scientists here are phenomenal. There are some brilliant people here.”
OMRF is an Oklahoma City-based private, nonprofit biomedical research institute founded 68 years ago. The foundation conducts research into the areas of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, lupus and children’s diseases.
Kennedy, 71, will say goodbye to his scientific colleagues and their hallway conversations on Valentine’s Day when he retires from his position at OMRF. He plans to spend his retirement years in Aspen, Colo.
Trained as a microbiologist, Kennedy’s career began as a researcher, but evolved into business development roles for the pharmaceutical industry.
Kennedy’s departure from OMRF will be his third retirement, he says with a laugh. He “retired” twice from pharmaceutical companies before his tenure began at the foundation.
OMRF was supposed to be a temporary layover on the road to permanent retirement.
Because of Oklahoma City’s proximity to his hometown of Wichita, Kan., Kennedy could commute to Kansas on weekends to care for his elderly parents and those of his wife.
The “layover” at OMRF continued long after their deaths. It lasted long enough that Kennedy was able to shepherd a potentially groundbreaking discovery with special importance to him into human clinical trials.
He calls the OMRF glioblastoma project the highlight of his entire 16-year tenure.
Glioblastomas are the most common form of primary brain tumor that kill most of its victims within a year of diagnosis. A glioblastoma claimed Kennedy’s brother, John, almost two decades ago.
“My brother died of a brain tumor at age 45, at the height of his productivity,” Kennedy said. “He was diagnosed and was dead a year and a half later.”
The foundation’s glioblastoma project uses a compound called OKN-007 developed by OMRF scientists Drs. Robert Floyd and Rheal Towner. OKN-007 showed great promise in shrinking tumors in animal models.
A two-year clinical trial involving glioblastoma patients began last year at two sites: the Peggy and Charles Stephenson Cancer Center at the University of Oklahoma and the Huntsman Cancer Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. Kennedy had a direct role in the clinical trial, developing the plan himself.
The glioblastoma project is just one of many groundbreaking discoveries emerging from OMRF labs, he said.
“There are so many really neat discoveries here that could be developed into lifesaving drugs,” Kennedy said. “A lot of the young, productive scientists that we’ve hired in the last five years or so are really going to start to flourish.”
When future discoveries at OMRF emerge from its laboratories, Kennedy will have to read about them from his Aspen home. His days of random walks and scientific discovery are over.
Jim Stafford is a communications specialist with i2E Inc. in Oklahoma City.