Reluctant Renaissance Man
Even though Olaf Schneewind operates seamlessly in many overlapping scientific, academic and corporate circles, he denies being a Renaissance Man.
“I’m just a complete workaholic, 365 days of the year,” he says.
“Despite his modesty, Dr. Schneewind brings tremendous experience and expertise for UChicagoTech,” says Alan Thomas, Director of UChicagoTech. “He conducts first-rate basic research while simultaneously having extensive contact with the corporate world. As such, he’s great at helping to connect people together and move basic research insights into the commercial world.”
At the root of Schneewind’s success is an intense love of basic scientific research. He studies the mechanisms and pathways by which bacteria cause human diseases, with the goal of developing diagnostic, vaccine and therapeutic interventions.
“We’re looking for ‘druggable’ compounds because we want to have a practical impact in the real world,” Schneewind says. “At the same time, a university is not a drug company. Our job should be to generate new ideas, technologies and compounds, and then to move on to the next project.”
“The University of Chicago, and UChicagoTech, afford a powerful platform from which to accomplish this,” he adds.
Schneewind and his colleagues have found a promising new chemical compound that interferes with the ability of Staphylococccus aureus (staph) to attach to host tissue. Each year, half a million hospital patients in the United States acquire a staph infection. The compound is nearing completion of early preclinical testing before proceeding to full-scale preclinical development and human trials. “I’m horribly confident that this compound will work,” Schneewind says.
Schneewind is also taking on the most notorious of all pathogens, Yersinia pestis, which causes the plague. His research focuses on blocking this pathogen’s ability to disarm human being’s natural defenses. “The plague hits every 150 to 200 years, so we’re trying to get ready for it,” Schneewind says. “Currently, there is no licensed vaccine on the market, so there’s no reason to suspect that the plague would not be 100% fatal, should it strike again.”
Very few potentially therapeutic chemical compounds ever make it to pharmacy shelves where they could help people, Thomas says. “Dr. Schneewind is a leader in identifying promising new candidates and finding new practical uses for existing drugs.”
Broad experience, great expertise
In addition to teaching and running the University’s Department of Microbiology, Schneewind has served as a consultant with most major pharmaceutical companies. He is currently working with Novartis to develop a vaccine for S. aureus infections.
He is chair of the University of Chicago’s Committee on Microbiology; staff scientist in the Division of Biological Sciences at the Argonne National Laboratory; head of the Great Lakes Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense & Emerging Infectious Diseases (one of 10 such centers aimed at improving national defenses against bioterrorism and infections diseases that includes a major joint research effort at the University).
Meanwhile, Schneewind is a member of several boards and National Institutes of Health study sections, and principal investigator on at least four major grants.
Schneewind is also a prolific author, with more than 140 journal articles and five book chapters to his name. He serves on the editorial boards of or is a referee on a dozen top scientific journals, including Science, Nature, and Cell and Molecular Microbiology.
By Greg Borzo
*UChicago Tech is now the Tech Commercialization team at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in recognition of a $50M gift from Michael Polsky in 2016 to expanded the Polsky Center in order to unify and enhance UChicago’s leading venture creation initiatives. Learn more about this transformational gift. >>