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People of Stanford Research Park: Chaitan Khosla

by SRP on April 8, 2024
Get to Know Chaitan Khosla: Blindsided by Biology

Director, Stanford Innovative Medicines Accelerator

In high school, a precocious Chaitan Khosla was no fan of biology. By the time he was enrolled in the intro biology class, he’d already been taken in by the physical sciences. To a young Chaitan, the descriptive nature of so much of biology couldn’t compete with trying to solve a complex problem of physics or seeing the logic of a chemical reaction.

Fast forward to today, Chaitan is the Director of the Stanford Innovative Medicines Accelerator, a professor in Stanford’s departments of chemistry and chemical engineering, and a professor in the biochemistry department (by courtesy), to name just a few of his many academic appointments. He’s won numerous prestigious science and engineering awards and honors. Much of his laboratory career has been devoted to studying and engineering the biosynthesis of antibiotics in bacteria and to the understanding the origins of celiac disease in order to discover therapies.

In short, the kid who thought biology was boring in high school went on to pursue several endeavors in life sciences and earned a reputation as a foremost thought leader in the fields of chemistry, engineering, and therapeutics. How did that happen?

A Momentous Realization

As it so often does—a life-changing spark of the imagination. In college, Chaitan earned a degree in chemical engineering. But as part of his education, he learned that a breakthrough in biological research or a chance discovery could translate into a life-saving therapeutic. The magnitude of this realization blindsided him: People just like him could impact the translational arm of biology and change medicine. All of a sudden, Chaitan saw biology for what it is—a relatively uncharted frontier with endless potential to transform and improve human life. It is a frontier he has been enthusiastically exploring and advancing since.

Despite the fact that Chaitan is a trained chemical engineer, his fascination with life sciences and drive to make a positive impact in the field has shaped his entire career. Former Stanford President John Hennessy was attuned to Chaitan’s passion for healthcare progress. In 2012, he encouraged Chaitan to form an institute to unite chemists, engineers, biologists, and clinicians around the shared goal of turning discoveries in chemistry and human biology into medicine. The result was Sarafan ChEM-H, for which Chaitan served as founding director for eight years. He would eventually hand the director role over to Nobel Prize winner Carolyn Bertozzi, also an accomplished translational chemist whom Chaitan had previously helped recruit to Stanford. Sarafan ChEM-H would go on to serve as the academic foundation to the more recently launched Stanford Innovative Medicines Accelerator (IMA).

Chaitan Khosla meets with members of the IMA team to discuss ongoing projects in the pipeline.
The Unique Value of the IMA

The IMA was born in 2020 to help Stanford harness the potential of two significant and under-utilized resources: principal investigators on the Stanford faculty and physician-scientists at Stanford hospitals. The University is home to a few hundred principal investigators dedicated to advancing biomedical research. From this group comes hundreds of discoveries every year that could translate into innovative medicines. Yet, due to various structural inefficiencies, only a very small fraction of these discoveries get to take even a first step toward a practical application. One of the goals of the IMA is to help more investigators access the resources and support they need in order to pursue the therapeutic possibilities of their discoveries. This objective was put to the test at the start of the pandemic. The IMA’s ability to rise to the challenge is best exemplified in the assistance it provided Peter Kim (affiliation) in advancing an early COVID-related breakthrough in his laboratory into what eventually became The Vaccines Company, now a well-funded startup in the Bay Area.

Additionally, within Stanford’s two tertiary care hospitals, Stanford Health Care and Stanford Children’s Health, are laboratory and clinical programs with hundreds of physician-scientists who are also part of Stanford faculty. Not only do they have deep insight into some complex clinical condition and invaluable knowledge gained from interacting with patients, but they also have insight into the scientific underpinnings of the condition. The other goal of the IMA is to open up pipelines for far more physician-scientists to apply their wisdom toward the development of new medicines. Again, COVID-19 provided an early testing ground for this thesis, where the IMA enabled several outpatient clinical trials for experimental medicines and diagnostics.

As director of the IMA, Chaitan’s focus has been three-fold. He has helped recruit (largely from the biopharma industry) a leadership team of highly-experienced technocrats capable of delivering against the IMA mission. With his support and encouragement, the IMA team has curated an impressive and diverse portfolio of more than 20 well-differentiated drug prototyping and experimental human biology projects, drawn from faculty investigators and hospital physician-scientists. And he’s been integral to helping the IMA build strategic external alliances—something that has come more readily, given that the accelerator decided to locate in Stanford Research Park’s Life Science District.

That once-bored student went on to do the exact thing that changed his view of biology—impact the world of medicines and develop an esteemed reputation for it along the way. At the IMA, Chaitan continues to build on Stanford’s legacy in both biology and medicine, as he and the IMA team unleash the power of collaboration.


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