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U Biologist Named to Institute of Medicine

Oct. 9, 2006 – Baldomero “Toto” Olivera – a University of Utah biologist who seeks new medications from the toxins of poisonous cone snails – won one of medicine’s top honors Monday when he was named as a new member of the Institute of Medicine.

The honor makes Olivera at least the 30th present or former University of Utah researcher to have been elected to membership in one or more of the three groups under the umbrella organization known as the National Academies: the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.

“It’s great,” says Olivera, a distinguished professor of biology. “I’m a basic researcher, so it was both unexpected and gratifying for our basic research to have medical applications. We certainly didn’t expect that when we got started. We just wanted to understand why cone snails were capable of killing people in certain circumstances. We never dreamt at the time it would have some direct medical application. I’m very, very pleased.”

Olivera was among 65 new members and five foreign associates elected to the Institute of Medicine, the organization announced Monday.

“It is a great pleasure to welcome these distinguished and influential individuals,” said Institute of Medicine President Harvey V. Fineberg. “Members are elected through a highly selective process that recognizes people who have made major contributions to the advancement of the medical sciences, health care and public health. Election is considered one of the highest honors in the fields of medicine and health.”

Election to the institute is Olivera’s second big honor this year. In April, he won a four-year, $1 million award as one of 20 new “Million-Dollar Professors” named by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Olivera grew up in the Philippines, where cone snails were sold in seafood markets and where fishermen occasionally were stung by the snails and killed by their venom. Cone snails harpoon fish with a hypodermic needle-like tooth, injecting venom that is toxic to the nervous system, paralyzing fish so they can be reeled in and eaten. Olivera and members of his lab have identified several promising drug candidates in the snails’ nerve poisons.

The natural form of Prialt – a new drug for severe pain approved in 2004 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – was discovered in Olivera’s lab in 1979 by J. Michael McIntosh, then an incoming freshman at the University of Utah and now a professor of psychiatry and research professor of biology. The drug was isolated from the fish-hunting cone snail Conus magus, or magician’s cone, which is only 1.5 inches long and thus too small to kill people it stings.

Prialt, sold by Ireland’s Elan Corp., is pumped into fluid surrounding the spinal cord to treat chronic, intractable pain suffered by people with cancer, AIDS, injury, failed back surgery or certain nervous system disorders.

About the Institute of Medicine

According to the Institute of Medicine, current active members elect new members from among candidates nominated for their professional achievement and commitment to service. An unusual diversity of talent is assured by the institute’s charter, which stipulates that at least one-quarter of the membership be selected from outside the health professions, from such fields as the natural, social and behavioral sciences, as well as law, administration, engineering and the humanities.

Established in 1970 by the National Academy of Sciences, the institute has become recognized as a national resource for independent, scientifically informed analysis and recommendations on issues related to human health. With their election, members make a commitment to devote a significant amount of volunteer time as members of institute study committees.

During the past year, institute reports have dealt with vulnerabilities of the U.S. drug safety system; medication errors and how to prevent them; recommendations to shore up the nation’s struggling emergency care system; redesigning how health care providers’ performance is measured and compensated to encourage improvements in health care; and assessing how well public and private organizations have done in pursuing and evaluating initiatives aimed at reducing the rate of childhood obesity.

University of Utah Faculty in the National Academies

Below are lists of other present or former University of Utah faculty elected to one or more of the National Academies. Note that some were elected before or after their tenure at the university:

  • National Academy of Sciences: Anthropologist James O’Connell; geneticist Mario Capecchi; chemist Peter Stang, dean of the U’s College of Science; geologist-geochemist Thure Cerling; anthropologist Henry Harpending; anthropologist Kristen Hawkes; late anthropologist Jesse D. Jennings; chemist Cheves Walling; biochemist Sidney Velick; biologist John R. Roth; chemist Josef Michl; geneticist Ray White; late anthropologist Julian Steward; and anthropologist Jeremy Sabloff.

  • National Academy of Engineering: the late R. Peter King; Adel Sarofim; Sun Wang Kim; Gerald Stringfellow; Donald Dahlstrom; the late George Hill; Jan D. Miller; Milton E. Wadsworth; the late Thomas G. Stockham; John Herbst; Stephen C. Jacobsen; and Willem J. Kolff.

  • Institute of Medicine: Jacobsen and Kim (both also are members of the National Academy of Engineering), obstetrician-gynecologist Eli Adashi and medical informatics professors Homer R. Warner and Paul D. Clayton.

A National Academies-Institute of Medicine news release about the new institute members is available at