Visionary biochemist to receive top WSU alumni award

PULLMAN, Wash. – Biochemist James A. Wells, a pioneering engineer of proteins, antibodies and small molecules that target cell sites to thwart disease and enhance drug therapies, will receive the Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25, in the CUB auditorium at Washington State University.

The award is the highest honor the university confers on alumni.

Following the award presentation, Wells will speak about “Attacking Cancer from the Outside.” A public reception will precede the presentation at 3:15 p.m.

Wells’ research lab designs proteins and small molecules that trigger cellular processes in order to better understand and treat cancer and inflammation. By identifying, activating and inhibiting critical signaling nodes in cells, the scientists seek to better understand how these drive responses such as cell death and differentiation.

He earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry from WSU in 1979. He did research in protein engineering at Genentech, was a founder, president and chief science officer at Sunesis Pharmaceuticals and is professor and former chair of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of California, San Francisco.

Wells has authored more than 190 peer-reviewed papers and is an inventor on over 60 patents. Several of his protein engineered products are sold by biotechnology companies, including Avastin for treating cancers and Somavert for treating the growth hormone disorder acromegaly. He is a founder of Warp Drive Bio and Calithera biosciences companies.

“He is a visionary, an entrepreneur, a brilliant scientist and a strong supporter of WSU,” said Michael D. Griswold, WSU Regents professor of molecular biosciences and one of Wells’ nominators. “When I was dean, Jim served on several advisory committees and offered invaluable advice on building our science faculty.”

Wells is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences and National Academy of Inventors. He has won awards from the American Chemical Society, Protein Society and American Peptide Society.

Since 1962, the Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award has been given to an alumus/a who has made significant contributions to society and, through his or her accomplishments, has brought attention to the quality of a WSU education.

Previous winners include broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, author Sherman Alexie, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, cartoonist Gary Larson, astronaut John Fabian, sports broadcaster Keith Jackson and wheat researcher Orville Vogel.

For more information about the award, see


News media contacts:
James A. Wells, WSU Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus,
Hailey Rupp, WSU Events marketing and promotions coordinator, 509-335-2103,