President Bilger presents Kevan Shokat ’86 with the Vollum Award for Distinguished Accomplishment in Science and Technology.  

President Bilger presents Kevan Shokat ’86 with the Vollum Award for Distinguished Accomplishment in Science and Technology.  

Kevan Shokat ’86 Receives Vollum Award

The scientist's research targeting KRAS mutations has opened doors to a new class of cancer treatments.

By Megan Burbank | August 1, 2023

For years, a protein mutation commonly found in cancer cells was thought to be “undruggable,” a term coined to describe a protein that will not interact with medications. Scientists have been trying to target the protein, known as KRAS, since the 1980s. But in 2013, researchers at UC San Francisco developed a way of flagging the mutated proteins for targeted attacks. Led by Kevan Shokat ’86, UCSF’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, the discovery paved the way for a new class of cancer drugs that could save lives and may one day even lead to a cure.

“It’s a really great experience to have so much information out there, but not seeing the exact path to the drug, and then just try things, shut it down, try another thing, shut it down, and then get lucky along the way,” says Shokat, this year’s recipient of the Vollum Award for Distinguished Accomplishment in Science and Technology, The award, created by the college as a tribute to Howard Vollum ’36, recognizes the exceptional achievement of a member of the scientific and technical community of the Northwest. Endowed in 1975 by a grant from the Millicent Foundation, it is now part of the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. 

This has been a big year for Shokat. He was also awarded the Sjöberg Prize in cancer research by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which recognized him as “the first person to succeed in blocking one of the mutated proteins that cause most cancer cases.” They added, “This is a huge scientific breakthrough that is bringing hope to people who are critically ill with lung cancer.”    

Two KRAS drugs have received FDA approval so far: sotorasib and adagrasib. After first-line therapies, the drugs are used to target a KRAS mutation that occurs in about a third of lung cancer patients. (Trials are currently underway to explore prescribing it earlier.) Because they work by targeting a single mutant protein and halting its communication, the new drugs are more precise than treatments like chemotherapy, which affects noncancerous cells as well as the tumor. “In patients who respond well, it can make a huge difference. For the approximately 30 percent of patients who do,” Shokat says, “they experience rapid tumor shrinkage.”

As new therapies targeting KRAS mutations evolve, Shokat hopes response rates will improve. “What’s exciting is a lot of companies have made their own drugs like this, and they’re combining it with other drugs that they’ve made,” he says. “So I think this is just the beginning of the response and benefit we can see in patients.”

Shokat first fell in love with scientific research at Reed. He’d attended a high school without a robust science curriculum, so when he arrived at the college, he recalls, “most everything in my science classes was new to me.” His fascination was immediate. “I just loved the deep dive of it,” he says. “And I always tell people who are thinking about Reed, to me, an intro class there is just so different than anywhere else, because all the professors taught you as if you were going to be getting a PhD in that topic.”

One of these professors was Phyllis Kosen [chemistry 1981–83]. Shokat remembers attending her office hours in the Reed coffee shop with excitement. “She was a biochemist, and so I got to start thinking—even though it was intro chemistry—about proteins, and that was really, really great,” he says. It was under the tutelage of beloved chemistry professor Thomas Dunne [1963–95] that Shokat came to appreciate the logic and clarity of chemistry. 

Receiving the Vollum award for work in a field he first encountered at Reed was cause for celebration. For Shokat, it’s also a full-circle moment. Reed wasn’t just an academic home for him: it’s where he met his wife, Trustee Deborah Kamali ’85, and it’s where his three children—Kasra Shokat ’14, Mitra Shokat ’18, and Leila Shokat ’21—attended college. He draws a straight line from his time at Reed to his experiences in his lab at UCSF. “I tell my students now: I’ve been running a lab for 25, 28 years, and every day, coming in is basically the same as when I went into lab to do my Reed thesis, or when I went into lab to do my PhD, because little things change, but just getting to think about molecules all the time has been so, so fun,” he says.

Tags: Alumni, Awards & Achievements