Dale B. Schenk, Prothena Corp. Co-Founder and CEO, Dies at 59

  • He was a pioneer in Alzheimer’s disease drug development
  • Multiple drug companies are pursuing his line of research

Dale Schenk, the co-founder and chief executive officer at Prothena Corp. who devoted his scientific career to researching neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, has died. He was 59.

He died Sept. 30 at his home in Hillsborough, California, Ellen Rose, a spokeswoman for Prothena, said in a telephone interview. The cause was pancreatic cancer, according to a statement from the Dublin-based biotechnology company. He was diagnosed with the disease in December 2014 and announced on Sept. 26 that he was taking a medical leave of absence.

Schenk gained prominence in the early 2000s for his work at Elan Corp., where he helped devise a vaccine to target beta amyloid, the protein that builds up in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

The program was one of the first to directly attack beta amyloid, and early indications suggested the approach might impede the progress of the disease. It was also one of the first in a long line of later therapies to build hope for treating the most common cause of dementia in the elderly, only to fail in later testing.

Then, as now, there were no medicines approved to target the underlying cause of the condition. The drugs that exist merely slow the progression of symptoms that accompany Alzheimer’s disease.

Dashed Hopes

The Elan vaccine removed buildup of the amyloid protein in the brains of mice bred to develop Alzheimer’s disease, and they never showed symptoms of it. In humans, however, the injection caused an inflammation of brain tissue, which led Elan to drop its development in 2002. Subsequent autopsies of patients who were treated with the vaccine and later died of unrelated causes showed they had less amyloid buildup in their brains, reviving hope that targeting the plaque could offer an avenue to treat the disease.

Throughout his career, Schenk defended the so-called amyloid hypothesis as the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, his area of expertise since he began working on it in the 1980s. The amyloid vaccine wasn’t his only setback. He also championed one of the most well-known experimental medicines in the Alzheimer’s area, bapineuzumab, though Elan ultimately sold the development rights to Johnson & Johnson.

Inspires Researchers

Bapineuzumab, too, ultimately reduced the buildup of amyloid in patients’ brains without slowing the onslaught of the disease. Schenk’s research inspired others to explore the same pathways, and numerous experimental drugs from companies including Eli Lilly & Co., Roche Holding AG and Merck & Co. remain in development.

Schenk climbed the ranks at Elan, rising to chief scientific officer and executive vice president after landing at the company through its acquisition of Athena Neurosciences in 1996. He left to help co-found and lead Prothena in 2012, after the development of bapineuzumab was halted after a second failed trial.

Prothena grew to have a market valuation of $2.06 billion. The company’s top development projects include treatments for two protein buildup disorders, AL amyloidosis and TTR amyloidosis, as well as the neurological disorder Parkinson’s disease.

Dale Bernard Schenk was born May 10, 1957, and grew up in Glendora, California. His parents were Walter Bernard Schenk, a firefighter, and Rosemary Schenk, a family therapist.

As a child he played chess and the piano, but later decided to pursue scientific research because "piano is a hard row to hoe," he said in a 2001 interview with CNN.com.

Early Career

He received a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of California at San Diego in 1979, according to his LinkedIn.com profile. In 1984, he earned a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from the school.

After gaining his doctorate, Schenk became a staff scientist at Scios Inc. of Mountain View, California. In 1987, he joined Athena Neurosciences Inc., in San Francisco, where he was director of neurobiology. He stayed on when the company was acquired by Elan in 1996, and was named chief scientific officer in 2008. He became head of Elan’s Neotope Biosciences division in 2009.

In 2001, he won the American Academy of Neurology’s Potamkin Prize for research in Alzheimer’s disease.

Schenk is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and their children Max and Sam, and two children, Anais and Sara, from a previous marriage to Maria Torres, who died in 2005.

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