Under his leadership, OMRF has enjoyed a decade of scientific achievement and historic campus expansion. Still, if you ask Dr. Stephen Prescott, he’ll tell you he’s just getting started.
For Dr. Stephen Prescott there was no aha! moment. No instant where everything crystallized and he just knew he had to take the helm of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
“If this were a movie,” he says, “there would have been some epiphany. I would have gazed across the campus at sunset and said, ‘This is exactly where I belong.’” He laughs. But the funny thing is, at this particular moment, he looks like he belongs precisely where he is.
He’s sitting at his desk, a few feet from a picture window that opens onto OMRF’s central courtyard, where the trees are beginning to take on autumnal hues of scarlet and gold. But Prescott doesn’t seem to notice. His eyes are fixed on the screen of his computer as he pecks away at the keyboard, trying to whittle away at scores of emails that accumulated during a morning of teaching what he calls “Executive Medical School.” It’s a program he designed and leads for OMRF’s National Advisory Council, a group of civic and business leaders he’s assembled from around the country who have volunteered to lend their talents to help OMRF.
Prescott’s tie is slightly askew, and he’s loosened his collar. But other than that, the physician and researcher appears no worse for the wear after having spent four hours leading a discussion about the microorganisms that line the human digestive tract.
“The class went great!” he says, turning away from his screen for a moment. “For our next session, we’re going to focus on diet and health. I think we can present some really interesting science.”
The color in his cheeks rises as he proceeds to tick off a string of projects that have been keeping him busy that week. There’s OMRF’s annual “241” (two events for one great cause) fundraiser that wrapped up the previous day, raising more than a half-million dollars for research at OMRF. He’s working with the neighboring VA Medical Center to help secure a research-grade MRI to study traumatic brain injury on the Oklahoma Health Center campus. And he’s been spearheading efforts to bring a half-dozen new principal scientists to OMRF from institutions around the country.
“On the heels of the financial crisis, we slowed our rate of recruitment,” he says. “In retrospect, I wish that maybe we hadn’t cut back quite so much. But at the time, we had to be cautious. We didn’t know what the future would bring.”
Ah, yes. That future thing. It can be tricky to predict.
In 2006, Prescott became OMRF’s ninth president. When he arrived, he said he “saw an organization that could make a difference in people’s lives, in human health.” But he needed time to develop his own vision for OMRF.
In the ensuing decade, he’s done just that. He’s led the largest campus expansion in OMRF’s history. He’s helped the foundation pivot from a laboratory-focused institute to one with a significant clinical presence. Two life-saving drugs born at OMRF have received FDA approval and are now being used to treat patients around the world, as is a test that helps physicians care for patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Prescott has also recruited more than two dozen new researchers and physicians, the so-called “next generation” of OMRF scientists. And he’s raised the funds to pay for it all.
Still, he says, “I’m most proud of the steady, substantial stream of scientific discovery by our researchers.” With that, he turns his attention back to his computer. He’s working on the early stages of coordinating the 2017 OMRF BioVenture Forum, a gathering of biotech and pharmaceutical executives to encourage scientific collaboration between industry and OMRF researchers. It’s yet another program he’s pioneered at OMRF—and another path he’s created to help transform the discoveries made in OMRF’s labs into treatments for patients everywhere.
“You know, it’s all still new and exciting to me,” he says. He shakes his head and grins in wonderment. “If you’d told me that 10 years ago, I never would’ve believed you.”
“It Felt Like Coming Home”
When OMRF embarked on the search for a new president in 2006, it cast a wide net. The opportunity to lead an institute with more than 40 laboratories and a history of stellar scientific achievement dating back more than a half-century was an attractive one, drawing interest from scores of prominent scientists from across the country.
“We had a lot of candidates who were excellent from the standpoint of their research backgrounds,” says OMRF board chair Len Cason, who led the search process. “But when I met Steve, he had that special quality. He was a leader.” Cason had interviewed other candidates, but he immediately knew that Prescott was the right person for the job. “I could tell he would be able to navigate all of those difficult situations you have when you’re CEO of an organization with such talented, intelligent, eccentric people.”
A well-respected physician-researcher, Prescott’s work led to the development of Cox-2 inhibitors, a family of drugs that includes Celebrex and is now used primarily to treat severe arthritis. Over time, his focus moved from the lab to senior scientific leadership at the University of Utah, where he helped to found and then served as the first executive director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute. “What makes me happiest is that we built a comprehensive cancer center that focused on the needs of patients,” he says.
With his work at Huntsman done—“If you’re looking for someone to serve as the caretaker of an outstanding institution, I’m not that guy”—Prescott began searching for a new opportunity. He was looking at positions in universities and biotechnology companies when he learned of the job at OMRF. He knew the foundation well, having served on its scientific advisory board and also as an external advisor on an OMRF grant for five years.
“Industry and academia are both extremely structured environments,” says Prescott. “What struck me about OMRF was the flexibility to pursue whatever I thought was the most interesting science.”
Prescott and Cason hit it off immediately. “The first time I met Steve, it felt like he was an old friend,” says Cason. In Prescott, Cason saw a results-oriented pragmatist focused on getting from point A to point B in the most efficient manner possible. “I thought we’d work well together, because we think a lot alike.” It didn’t hurt that when Cason checked with Dr. William Thurman, who’d served as OMRF’s president from 1979 to 1997, Prescott received a ringing endorsement.
The feeling was mutual. “The more people Steve met, the more convinced he became that OMRF was the right place,” says Prescott’s wife, Susan. High school sweethearts, the pair had grown up in College Station, Texas. “Steve interviewed in other places, but Oklahoma felt so familiar,” she says. “It felt like coming home.”
At OMRF, Prescott hit the ground running. Within a month of joining the foundation—“I hadn’t even finished unpacking my office”—he began laying the groundwork for a grant from the State of Oklahoma Opportunity Fund. Those funds would serve as the keystone for a project that would ultimately reshape OMRF.
For years, the size of OMRF’s scientific staff had been increasing. By the time Prescott arrived in Oklahoma City, the foundation had literally outgrown its space, some of which dated back to the foundation’s opening more than a half-century before.
“All of our labs were full, so we had to rent space at the Presbyterian Health Foundation Research Park,” says Prescott. When new researchers joined OMRF, they found themselves and their staffs on a sort of island, separated from the rest of the foundation by a mile or so. “Scientifically, it’s difficult to thrive when you’re isolated from your colleagues,” says Prescott. “And even though the space at the research park was top-notch, if you were an OMRF employee working there, you couldn’t help but feel disconnected from the rest of the foundation.”
Prescott proposed a bold plan: to construct a research tower at the heart of OMRF’s campus. The new facility would enable the foundation to bring all of its employees back to a single campus. It would also provide OMRF with future room for growth. It would allow for the addition of much-needed space for core facilities such as microscopy and imaging, as well as a biorepository for storing research samples collected from patients. Finally, it would give OMRF a chance to establish a robust clinical presence—a clinic that would allow physicians to treat patients and also conduct research.
With the support of OMRF’s board of directors, Prescott worked with Gov. Brad Henry and the Oklahoma legislature to secure funding for the project. Henry announced that the state would provide OMRF with a $15 million grant to help support the project, which, he predicted, would “lay the foundation for even greater scientific achievements.” The tower, he said, represented “a bold investment that will pay major dividends for our state’s health, environment and economic development. It will, quite literally, transform the future of medical research in Oklahoma.”
With the state’s lead grant in place, Prescott set out to raise the remaining funds for the project. All told, the price tag for the expansion represented the largest single expenditure in OMRF history: $100 million. The formidable fundraising initiative, which Prescott dubbed the Discoveries Campaign, grew even more difficult when the recession of 2008 and 2009 hit.
“As things got worse with the economy, we stepped back and reassessed,” says Prescott. “Nobody could see what was going to happen.” Still, when he brought up the prospect of shelving the expansion, OMRF’s board urged him to forge ahead. “They understood that this was mission-driven. And they saw a unique opportunity. So they asked, ‘Why wouldn’t we do this?’”
While raising the additional $85 million needed to complete the project “proved more challenging than we’d first expected,” Prescott says, he and his OMRF fundraising team ultimately met their goal. “Even when oil prices hit rock bottom, our supporters kept giving. And the people who’d made pledges made good on them.”
OMRF broke ground on the research tower in 2009 and completed construction two years later. When it opened in 2011, the 186,000-square-foot facility added dozens of new laboratories, the Samuel Roberts Noble Cardiovascular Center, and the Multiple Sclerosis Center of Excellence, a research clinic that would treat thousands of Oklahoma patients suffering from MS.
The building also incorporated numerous energy-saving elements into its design, including 18 helix-shaped wind turbines atop its roof. The tower earned Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council and was named a finalist for the Renewable Energy World North America Award. In an international competition involving more than 30 new buildings around the world, the tower won the S-Lab (short for “safe, successful, sustainable”) Award for best new research laboratory.
“We wanted to demonstrate that expansion could be bold and responsible at the same time,” says Prescott. “It’s a symbol of forward-looking excellence, of an organization that aspires to do great things. I think the building achieved that.”
With the state-of-the-art scientific facility completed, Prescott could turn his attention to a new task: recruiting the next generation of scientific talent to OMRF.
Recruiting the Next Generation
“When I came, it was obvious we had a significant number of senior scientists who would be reaching retirement age,” says Prescott. “They were institutional leaders, and we were going to have to replace them.”
Working with the heads of OMRF’s various research programs, Prescott and the foundation searched nationally and internationally, seeking out researchers in a wide variety of disciplines. Efforts initially focused on junior researchers, and within two years, OMRF had successfully recruited eight new principal scientists. They came from institutions such as Duke University, Yale University, the University of North Carolina and the National Institutes of Health, as well as from universities in Sweden and the United Kingdom. They immediately made an impact, securing a number of significant grants and making important findings in heart disease, lupus and cancer.
Those initial successes were followed with other new additions, including two key senior researchers: Drs. Holly Van Remmen and David Jones. Van Remmen joined OMRF from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, where her work focused on age-related muscle loss and Parkinson’s disease. At OMRF, she teamed with researchers at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center to establish the state’s first Nathan Shock Center of Excellence in the Basic Biology of Aging. With this designation—one of only five nationwide—came major funding from the National Institutes of Health to help cultivate research projects focused on diseases of aging.
While Van Remmen now leads OMRF’s research efforts in age-related diseases, Jones came to Oklahoma from the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute to spearhead a new initiative in cancer research at OMRF.
Jones specializes in the field of precision medicine, the tailoring of personalized courses of treatment for individual patients. He uses experimental “models” such as zebrafish to develop a more thorough understanding of human biological processes, then works with clinicians to apply those lessons to help cancer patients in the clinic. In partnership with OU’s Peggy and Charles Stephenson Cancer Center, Jones has assembled a team of new scientists with similar research interests from the National Institutes of Health, the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the University of Illinois.
For each of these recruits—and every job candidate who comes to OMRF as a potential principal investigator to lead a laboratory at the foundation—Prescott interviewed them personally. It’s not something the president of a research institution typically does, but Prescott believes this sort of “high touch” approach is crucial to drawing talented scientists to Oklahoma and OMRF.
“It’s hard to attract the best scientists out there,” he says. “So you need to try to sell the city and the organization from day one.”
Those efforts have proven successful, as the majority of OMRF’s scientific faculty now consists of researchers who joined the foundation since 2006. Prescott, though, laments the fact that OMRF slowed recruiting efforts during the financial crisis and again when energy prices dropped. “It would have been nerve-wracking, but in retrospect, I think we could have handled it financially.” As a result, the number of principal researchers at OMRF is not yet at the level he’d initially envisioned. “So, we’re picking up recruitment again.”
The process, he recognizes, is a dynamic one. “All good places are constantly adapting their science. You reconfigure. You pivot. You re-focus your recruiting efforts.” OMRF’s flexibility, he says, gives it an inherent advantage over larger, more bureaucratic institutions. “Science changes quickly. The most successful organizations do, too.”
Discoveries That Make a Difference
Since Prescott joined OMRF, two breakthrough medications born in the foundation’s labs have reached clinics and pharmacies. Soliris became the first drug to treat paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, or PNH, a debilitating blood disorder. And Ceprotin, a treatment for children suffering from a life-threatening protein deficiency, received FDA approval in the U.S. Overseas, Ceprotin became the initial therapy made available under the European Union’s centralized marketing procedure.
“Our mission has always been broader than conducting medical research. From the earliest days, OMRF’s motto was ‘that more may live longer, healthier lives,’” says Prescott. “That means transforming laboratory discoveries into ways to help patients.”
Under Prescott, that focus—which he calls “discoveries that make a difference”—has expanded to include more than drugs. In 2010, an OMRF-based test became available to help physicians manage treatment of patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Based on discoveries made by the foundation’s Arthritis and Clinical Immunology Research Program, Vectra DA, as the test is known, has now been used more than 200,000 times to monitor disease activity levels in patients and to help adjust their medication levels.
Prescott sees disease-monitoring tools like this, which rely on analyses of multiple biological markers gathered from patients through a biological sample, as an emerging facet of the treatment landscape. “It’s particularly true in autoimmune diseases, where you have illnesses that remit and flare and require regular adjustments in treatment.” Consequently, in a new partnership with a start-up company known as ProGentec, OMRF is now working to develop a similar biomarker-based test to guide rheumatologists in the treatment of lupus patients.
One of Prescott’s strategic emphases has been “to increase the impact of our work,” he says. “An effective way to do that is by forming partnerships.”
Those partnerships have included collaborations with the biotech and pharmaceutical industry, which bring drugs and tests based on OMRF discoveries to market. He’s also concentrated on strengthening ties with academic partners, especially with OU and Oklahoma State University. “In this era, no institution can attempt to do everything on its own,” Prescott says.
To that end, OMRF has inked a long-term collaboration agreement with OU’s Stephenson Cancer Center, with OMRF researchers providing research support and next-generation DNA sequencing to scientists at the Stephenson Center. Led by OMRF’s Dr. Judith James, OU secured a major grant to improve clinical care for underserved populations across the state. The project also includes researchers and physicians from OSU and more than a dozen other state and tribal organizations. “Particularly in a small state, it’s foolish to replicate infrastructure or put together duplicative research programs,” says Prescott. “Collectively, we’re so much better.”
Prescott’s vision for partnership extends well beyond Oklahoma. In addition to scores of joint projects between individual scientists at OMRF and U.S. institutes and universities, OMRF has forged a formal partnership with a pair of institutions in India: the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology and Christian Medical College in Vellore.
“These institutions share research interests with us, and they have access to resources like unique clinical populations that can enhance the work,” says Prescott. “The world of research is evolving. We need to keep expanding our horizons.”
OMRF has also inaugurated a program to bring Polish graduate students to the foundation each year. It’s formed a partnership with the Oswaldo Cruz Institute in Rio de Janeiro to focus on infections and vaccinations. But some of those expanded horizons have not required OMRF to reach across the seas.
Connecting With Patients
When he made the decision to build the research tower, Prescott saw a chance for OMRF to return to its roots. But with a twist.
“Clinical research has always been part of our identity,” he says. When OMRF first opened, it ran a research hospital, where children suffering from intractable cancers could receive experimental treatments. Although that hospital closed in 1976, OMRF maintained a limited clinical presence, treating a small number of lupus and rheumatoid arthritis patients, who also frequently participated in clinical trials and research studies.
With the new facility, Prescott wanted to increase OMRF’s clinical footprint. But that expansion, he says, had to make sense for the foundation as a whole.
“I wanted to rebalance our research portfolio to add more of a clinical piece,” he says. “But we’re not in the patient care business, so whatever we did needed to have a connection back to the lab.”
He saw that connection in multiple sclerosis, a disease where OMRF had done a small amount of research. However, it’s a member of the family of autoimmune diseases, conditions in which the body mistakenly turns its immune system against itself. With strong research programs in other autoimmune diseases such as lupus, Sjögren’s syndrome and sarcoidosis, Prescott saw a natural bridge to MS.
With a clinic, OMRF could offer treatment to patients. Those patients, Prescott hoped, would volunteer to participate in research studies that would enable scientists to gain a better understanding of what underlies MS and its sister autoimmune conditions. “Our goal is to look at how autoimmune diseases get started. And how to use medications more effectively and sooner.”
He recruited Dr. Gabriel Pardo to serve as director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center of Excellence, which opened its doors in the spring of 2011. The Center is now treating more than 2,000 patients from Oklahoma and surrounding states and has a dozen clinical trials of experimental treatments for MS underway. Pardo and his colleagues are also working with Dr. Bob Axtell, an MS researcher who joined OMRF from Stanford University in 2013, to use laboratory research to answer questions they encounter in the clinic.
“We’ve really made huge progress,” says Prescott. “Dr. Pardo and his team offer wonderful, supportive care for their patients.” And their work with Axtell—which Prescott would like to supplement with the addition of another clinician and another laboratory researcher—is helping to develop new strategies for disease prediction and management.
This approach to integrating laboratory and clinical research has twice helped OMRF win a designation from the National Institutes of Health as an Autoimmunity Center of Excellence, most recently in 2014. The award, which comes with significant federal funding for future research projects, places OMRF among fewer than a dozen institutions nationwide, an elite group that also includes Harvard and Stanford Universities.
“Sitting in an office or a laboratory, you don’t know what the most relevant, pressing clinical problems are. Interaction with clinicians is key,” says Prescott. “Having a major clinical presence onsite has really helped us inform our discovery research efforts.”
The Next Chapter
Late in the summer of 2016, OMRF celebrated the 70th birthday of its founding. Prescott wanted the affair to be low-key—tee shirts and cupcakes, not black ties and martinis. He gave a brief toast to the hundreds of employees who’d gathered in the foyer of the research tower, then each received a free commemorative tee shirt. The shirts bore a picture of a birthday cake beneath the words “70 years of illuminating discoveries,” which had been suggested by a researcher. That slogan won out in a foundation-wide vote over several dozen other entries, including “Making a difference since Harry Truman was president.”
Prescott, who wore one of the tees, moved easily among the employees, chatting with administrative staffers and researchers. He clearly enjoys these interactions, whether it’s in the OMRF fitness center (where he works out regularly) or serving pancakes as part of the foundation’s annual United Way fundraiser.
Outside of OMRF, the same sort of approachability has served him well. He’s taken on a prominent role in the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, where he’s helping to lead efforts to create an “Innovation District” in the area surrounding OMRF. He speaks frequently at Rotary Clubs and other civic organizations, and he’s also become something of a public resource for all things health-related in Oklahoma, with a pair of columns that run regularly in The Oklahoman as well as frequent appearances on local newscasts.
“Our reputation has always been good, but Steve has become the face of OMRF,” says Cason, the foundation’s board chair since 2001. “Everybody knows Steve, and everybody respects him.”
Prescott feels the same way about the community. “People have been even more welcoming and friendly than we’d anticipated,” he says. “We’ve made more friends—and more good friends—here in 10 years than we did in 30 years in Salt Lake City.”
Dr. Paul Kincade, for one, is not surprised that Prescott has proven such a good fit for OMRF and Oklahoma. “Steve has a talent for understanding people, he loves interacting with just about any constituency, and he’s extremely good at it,” says Kincade, who joined OMRF’s scientific staff in 1982 and served as vice president of research under Prescott for a half-dozen years.
Prescott’s success at OMRF, says Kincade, comes from the decades he spent in the lab. “He understands scientists, and all of his efforts are devoted to supporting them. He provides them with resources, but then he gives them freedom and doesn’t micromanage them.” That environment, says Kincade, “encourages people to innovate.” And when they do, says Kincade, “Steve is very good at identifying excellence and rewarding it.”
As Prescott looks ahead, he has a good-sized to-do list. Atop it is to keep growing OMRF’s scientific staff. “I’d like to get a little bigger, but I’m not sure exactly how much is the ideal critical mass,” he says. Plus, there’s the continual need to replace scientists who retire or depart OMRF for other reasons. And for every new researcher who sets up a laboratory at the foundation, it requires at least $1 million in “start-up” funding for supplies, equipment and salaries of lab personnel. “That means fundraising will always remain a priority,” he says.
Prescott wants OMRF to continue to build new networks with other institutions and industry sectors. “Is there something in imaging that we can do to connect with oil and gas or aerospace?” he muses. He also intends to take a closer look at how OMRF can begin to explore bioengineering.
“Steve has poised the institution for future growth,” says Dr. Thomas Tedder, a professor of immunology at Duke University School of Medicine. In 2016, he served as chair of OMRF’s scientific advisory board, a group of researchers who come from across the country each year to perform an external review of OMRF’s research programs. “He’s really thought through the process. I think the future is very rosy for OMRF.”
Prescott is excited about what the coming years hold for the foundation—and for him. He recognizes that retirement looms somewhere out on the horizon, but he doesn’t see it coming “any time soon.” For his part, Cason doesn’t relish that prospect, whenever it may come.
“When Steve built the tower, he made a lot of capital improvements, he upgraded our level of science, and he did it all in a way that kept the team happy and together,” says Cason. “That will make life very hard on his successor. I mean, under those circumstances, how can you avoid failing other people’s expectations?”
At the foundation’s 70th birthday celebration, OMRF had hired a photographer to take a shot of the entire staff. On the second-floor balcony of the research tower, he set up lights and climbed a step ladder to enable him to take a shot of the foyer below, where 300 or so OMRF employees were now all clad in their matching blue tees.
The crowd gathered in a more or less organized fashion and peered up at the photographer. Prescott stood a dozen or so rows back, a few people removed from the table where employees had handed out the tee shirts.
The photographer called out for Prescott to move to the front. After all, this was his party, his foundation. But OMRF’s president didn’t move. Maybe he hadn’t heard above the crowd noise.
Again, the photographer shouted. But instead of moving, Prescott simply shook his head.
Sometimes, it seems, the best way to lead is not to move to the front. Just make a good plan and set things in motion. When it all comes together, you don’t need to call attention to yourself. You can just sit back and enjoy the moment.
“Everybody look at me and smile!” the photographer yelled over the din. Prescott looked up, surrounded by his employees in the tower he’d built,