By Paula Burkes
Copyright © 2017, The Oklahoma Publishing Co.
It was a tiny advertisement in the corner of a crowded bulletin board at Harvard College that fortuitously sent Paul DeAngelis, a professor and scientist at the University of Oklahoma, on his career path of studying sugar polymers — and the now real potential for a much safer and more effective form of the blood-thinner heparin, better delivery methods for all drugs, and more.
The year was 1981 and DeAngelis was a sophomore looking for a work/study job when he spied the scrap of paper about research involving carbohydrate chemistry. Most of the other research was on proteins or DNA regulation.
“That work/study job is what started me off in the sugar world,” DeAngelis said. “I figured it was a new frontier and I could blaze my own trail.”
And blaze he has.
Along with teaching at OU, DeAngelis serves as chief scientist for four biotech companies including 15-year-old Heparinex, which produces a synthetic bacteria-based anticoagulant, after animal-based heparin caused nearly 100 deaths in China, and 8-year-old Caisson Biotech, which uses a precursor to heparin — a sugar molecule native to the human body — for a new drug delivery method that lengthens drugs’ effectiveness and lessens their side effects.
From his eighth-floor lab in the OU Medicine tower, DeAngelis, 55, sat down on Tuesday to talk with The Oklahoman about his life and career. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Based on your surname, I’m guessing you have Italian roots?
A: Yes. My dad was 100 percent Italian. My mom is German and Irish. All of my grandparents were born in the U.S. Funny … once when I was visiting Sorrento, Italy, three different people mistook me as a native, inviting me to go somewhere or asking for a ride. I don’t speak Italian; only the Spanish I learned in high school.
Q: What did your parents do?
A: When they met, my mom was a jockey and my dad was a trainer. But when it was time for me to start school, my dad got a job in a brewery bottling plant in Baltimore and my mom took care of us kids. I’m the oldest of five. After we all graduated high school, my parents moved out of the city to raise thoroughbreds. My mom, who’s in her 70s, rode horses on the training track until 10 years ago. She still lives in Maryland; we’ve lost my dad. My siblings are scattered, but we all got together this past Easter at my sister’s house in Florida.
Q: When did you decide to become a scientist?
A: I always liked science. As a kid, I grew plants and did experiments. My mom would say “Don’t make that smelly stuff in my kitchen,” but she was really supportive. My parents, so that we’d be physically fit, also encouraged sports. I played three or four a year, including football and wrestling. In the spring, I’d ride my bike from lacrosse practice to baseball practice.
Q: Did you get a full scholarship to Harvard?
A: Pretty much. Every year, I had to earn $1,000, my parents would pay $1,000, and I’d take out a $1,000 student loan. I’m sure my parents were happy, because I easily could’ve eaten more than 1,000 bucks of food a year.
Q: What brought you to Oklahoma?
A: I did postdoctoral work at the University of Texas medical branch in Galveston with Paul Weigel, who recruited me here after he became chair of the Biochemistry and Microbiology Department; he’s now chair emeritus. I joined the faculty in December 1994 as an assistant professor with my own projects. I’d never even driven through Oklahoma, but I knew it was a good opportunity. There already was glycobiology experience in Oklahoma, OU was proactive with biotech ventures, and people here are nice and work hard.
Q: Tell us more about your promising pharmaceuticals.
A: We discovered an enzyme in bacteria and harnessed the ability to make new and different-sized sugar polymers with repeating chains. That’s opened up all sorts of possibilities for biomaterials and drug delivery; much like plastics, which includes plastic bags, plastic tubes and more.
One of the biotech companies I founded, Hyalose LLC, is focused on the commercialization of unique recombinant technologies for producing Hyaluronic Acid, an important biomolecule for many health care and cosmetic applications. Everything still is under evaluation, but hopefully will get into humans some time. Carbohydrates are more invisible and harder to study than proteins and DNA, which are easier to watch. There are fewer tools in the field, but we’re learning new stuff all the time.