In Memoriam: Dr. Philip E. Thorpe, Professor of Pharmacology

By Russell Rian

Dr. Philip E. Thorpe, whose research focused on development of novel drugs targeting tumor blood vessels, died March 30.

Dr. Philip E. Thorpe
Dr. Philip E. Thorpe

“His achievements in drug targeting, angiogenesis, and antibody-based therapeutics had global impact, and his loss will be felt deeply on our campus and well beyond,” said Dr. Greg Fitz, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, Provost, and Dean of UT Southwestern Medical School.

Dr. Thorpe, a Professor of Pharmacology who also held an appointment in the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, was the holder of The Serena S. Simmons Distinguished Chair in Cancer Immunopharmacology.

Dr. Thorpe discovered that a fatty lipid molecule, phosphatidylserine, is preferentially expressed on cancer blood vessels, where it can serve as a target to increase the specificity of drugs to the tumor.

“He was firmly dedicated to the translation of his novel concepts in drug design into practical drug therapies for cancer, imaging agents, and antivirals,” Dr. Fitz said. “His expertise covered a wide range of fields including protein engineering, synthetic chemistry, pharmacological testing, cell biology, and immunology. Five drugs developed wholly or partially in Dr. Thorpe’s laboratory have entered clinical trials.”

For the past 15 years, Dr. Thorpe also worked as a scientific advisor to Peregrine Pharmaceuticals Inc., based in Tustin, Calif., to develop novel therapeutics. Dr. Thorpe was included in 252 issued and pending worldwide patents, including 74 in the U.S. He was the author of more than 200 publications in the fields of drug targeting, angiogenesis, and antibody-based therapeutics.

In 1998, Dr. Thorpe was named one of the first recipients of the Pierce Immunotoxin Award, an honor presented every two years for outstanding contributions to immunotoxin research. He also received the Texas State Legislature Award for Research Excellence in 1997 and the American Cancer Society Award of Excellence in 1999.

Dr. Thorpe graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in pharmacology from the University of Liverpool in 1972, and he earned a Ph.D. in immunology from London’s Clinical Research Centre in 1976. He served as a Medical Research Council Fellow at Chester Beatty Research Institute in London (now The Institute of Cancer Research) until 1981, then as Director of the Drug Targeting Laboratory, Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London until 1991. At that time, he joined UT Southwestern as Professor of Pharmacology. From 1998-1999, Dr. Thorpe also served as Associate Director of the Center for Molecular Medicine at Maine Medical Center Research.

Dr. Alfred Gilman, Nobel Laureate and Regental Professor Emeritus of Pharmacology, said, “Phil Thorpe was a marvelous combination of immunologist and pharmacologist. His insights into biological problems were keen, and his imagination and sense of daring were inspiring. We were privileged and honored that he was our colleague and friend for more than two decades.”

Dr. David Mangelsdorf, Chair of Pharmacology, said, “Dr. Thorpe was a valued colleague on every level. As a brilliant translational scientist, he saw his work move from the inception of an idea to experiments at the bench and on to the clinic. As an educator, he was one of the best, and took his job teaching graduate and medical students seriously. As a mentor, he trained some of the finest new scientific minds. He will be sorely missed.”

Dr. Ellen Vitetta, Director of the Cancer Immunobiology Center and Professor of Immunology and Microbiology, said that “Phil was one of a kind … a Renaissance man who was at once a Brit and a Texan, a scientist and a poet, an amazingly creative out-of-the-box thinker who was also his own toughest critic. He loved structures and chemistry, but thrived on art and music. He was a complex man with many facets. We lost him far too soon, and we will all miss him. We take some solace in the fact that the world is a better place because of him.”


Dr. Fitz holds the Nadine and Tom Craddick Distinguished Chair in Medical Science, and the Atticus James Gill, M.D. Chair in Medical Science.

Dr. Mangelsdorf holds the Raymond and Ellen Willie Distinguished Chair in Molecular Neuropharmacology in Honor of Harold B. Crasilneck, Ph.D., and the Distinguished Chair in Pharmacology.

Dr. Vitetta holds the Scheryle Simmons Patigian Distinguished Chair in Cancer Immunobiology.