Marquette University, B.S. 2002
On March 22, 2013, Dr. Frank Rigo (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, ’02) returned to speak at Marquette as part of the department’s Scholl Seminar Series. His seminar, “Antisense Oligonucleotides for CNS Diseases: From the Bench to the Bed Side” presented his research in RNA-targeting drugs at Isis Pharmaceuticals. During his visit, Dr. Rigo met with faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students to discuss his research. I sat down with him to learn more about his work and his career since his time as an undergraduate at Marquette University. -KB
Frank Rigo, Ph.D.
When he realized that his childhood dream of becoming a professional tennis player might not happen, Dr. Frank Rigo turned to his other passion, science. “Since I was a little kid I was always curious about the natural world around me. I was always interested in trying to understand how living systems originate and are maintained. From keeping fish tanks and growing produce for his family’s restaurant as a kid, science seemed a natural career path.” When he was growing up, the news in Spain was full of new developments in genetic engineering and molecular biology, and he became very intrigued with gene expression.
At 18, Rigo thought coming to the US would be a fun adventure, so he came to Marquette University from the Spanish Canary Islands on a tennis scholarship. Rigo worked hard and successfully juggled his athletics and academics. As an undergrad at Marquette, he took his first steps to becoming a scientist by majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and was introduced to independent research in the chemistry department. Wanting to continue his path in science, but desiring a return to a climate warmer than Wisconsin, Rigo went to UCLA to obtain his Ph.D.
In graduate school, Rigo refined his interests to RNA metabolism and regulation, and this expertise became the building blocks of what he now does in industry. Rigo wanted to use his scientific expertise to help people, and he wanted to see the direct benefit of his efforts. Knowing that academia is generally not focused on translational research, and that funding can be a challenge, Rigo was drawn to a career in industry where he felt he could more easily accomplish his goals of seeing his work directly translated into meaningful therapies that helped patients.
Dr. Rigo is now a Ph.D. research scientist at Isis Pharmaceuticals in Carlsbad, CA. Isis was founded in 1989 to develop new technologies that target RNA. Referencing the cell biology class he took at MU from Dr. Gail Waring, Rigo explains Isis’s strategy by describing the central dogma of molecular biology. “A gene is encoded in DNA, that information is transduced into RNA, which is then coded into a protein which exerts the information in the cell. Historically, the world of molecular biology was very protein centric, so it follows that technologies to treat diseases focused on proteins. What Isis is doing is entering the process a step earlier by preventing the information flow from DNA to protein by using new technologies to eliminate the messengerRNA.”
Dr. Rigo’s team focuses mostly on certain genes that affect neurological disorders such as ALS, spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and Alzheimer’s. They develop oligonucleotides (short, single-strands of DNA or RNA molecules) to modulate the expression of these genes. Since natural nucleic acids are degraded by the body, and aren’t transported to tissues effectively as a drug, these oligonucleotides need to be chemically modified so that they have the properties of a drug. Once a successful drug is identified, it can proceed to clinical trials. Rigo hopes that in the near future he might see the approval of the drug his team has been developing for SMA.
“So far,” Dr. Rigo says, “it’s been a nice ride, and good work leading up to clinical trials has been done, but ultimately what matters is to improve the quality of life of patients with SMA. SMA is a devastating disease, and it would be a major accomplishment if these kids could have normal lives.”
What’s next? Dr. Rigo is looking forward to how this technology can help with other diseases. “We have a unique opportunity to make a difference in many different diseases. Isis Pharmaceuticals is uniquely positioned to do a lot of really good things for neurological disorders.”
As if developing life changing drugs wasn’t enough, Dr. Rigo also surfs.