James A. Wells, PhD, focuses on development of enabling technologies for engineering proteins and for identifying small molecules to aid in drug discovery. He is interested in the discovery and design of small molecules and enzymes that trigger or modulate cellular processes in inflammation and cancer. Using small molecules and engineered proteins, the Wells lab is studying how enzymes known as proteases are turned on to cleave particular proteins in cells. The lab is currently focusing on a set of proteases, known as caspases, responsible for fate determining cellular decisions involved in apoptosis and innate inflammation among others. These enzymes act as cellular remodelers and help us understand the essential protein struts that support life.
Wells is a professor and chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry in the UCSF School of Pharmacy. He holds a combined appointment as professor in the Department of Cellular & Molecular Pharmacology in the School of Medicine. He joined UCSF in 2005 as holder of the Harry Wm. and Diana V. Hind Distinguished Professorship in Pharmaceutical Sciences. Wells also founded and directs the Small Molecule Discovery Center (SMDC) located at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus. He earned a PhD degree in biochemistry from Washington State University with Professor Ralph Yount in 1979 and completed postdoctoral work at Stanford University School of Medicine with Professor George Stark in 1982. Before joining UCSF, Wells was the founding scientist in Genentech’s Protein Engineering Department, and in 1998 Wells co-founded Sunesis Pharmaceuticals.
Wells is a recipient of the Hans Neurath Award by the Protein Society, the Pfizer Award and Smissman Award given by the American Chemical Society, the Perlman Lecture Award given by the ACS Biotechnology Division, the du Vigneaud Award given by the American Peptide Society, the Merck Award from the ASBMB and in 1999 a member of the National Academy of Sciences.