Attracting Talent for the Future of Medicine
Assistant Professor Owen Fenton is building a team to fight neurodegenerative diseases
Story by Angela Harwood | Photo by Jeyhoun Allebaugh | Published April 4, 2023
Before joining the faculty at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, Owen Fenton studied under one of the world’s leading mRNA delivery researchers: Robert Langer, cofounder of Moderna. Getting Fenton from Massachusetts to Chapel Hill was a big win for the University. Fenton sees coming to Carolina as a win for his research interests, as well.
“I view the future of medicine as being very interdisciplinary, which was one of the biggest attractions in coming to UNC, where we benefit from being able to partner with amazing faculty and collaborate through groups like the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center,” Fenton shared.
The University’s more than 50 core facilities — which offer the latest technologies and expert staff — were also a draw.
“This idea of discovery enablement is so important to next-generation therapy development, which is what our team focuses on here at UNC. If you’re part of a group working to develop new types of medicine, there is no better place to be than within the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy.”
Another important tool in recruiting Fenton to the school was Dean Angela Kashuba’s ability to access flexible, unrestricted funds from an endowment to help cover startup costs for the Fenton Lab. The endowment is supported by philanthropic contributions from alumni of the School.
“Due to the generosity of our donors, we have the ability to quickly access funds and capitalize on big opportunities, like supporting Owen,” said Kashuba. “It’s humbling to see our alums and partners eager to help us in this way. I’m so grateful to be able to invest their gifts in enriching our community and creating opportunities for significant impact.”
“That flexible support was critical to rapidly build up our team,” said Fenton. “To me, the most important foundation for success is a team-based environment that promotes creativity.”
Fenton describes himself as a “very people-centered person.” He attributes his team spirit to his father, a former professional hockey player. His academic interests he ascribes to his mother, a former educational professional and one of 10 children. Fenton, the younger of two brothers, grew up surrounded by family.
“I’m the only scientist in my family — but it fits,” Fenton said, laughing. “I love research and teaching, and a lot of that comes from my mom’s passion for education. I also developed my love of teamwork through my father, who helped inspire the collaborative research mentality in my lab.”
The Fenton Lab works broadly within the field of genetic medicine and its applications in treating diseases of the brain. Fenton’s research focuses on the delivery of mRNA therapeutics, which leverage the body’s own genetic code as medicine to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s, as well as cancers including glioblastomas.
“Treating these diseases is complex and requires an interdisciplinary approach that brings together experts from diverse backgrounds,” Fenton said. “Because of the critical support we received from Dean Kashuba and the University, we have already been able to bring together experts from key backgrounds. Working with this diverse team of exceptional researchers has really helped accelerate our work.”
Fenton said his transition to UNC Chapel-Hill, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, was “outstanding.”
“We are ramping up to put out a pretty good amount of work shortly. We have been able to set up our whole pipeline for therapeutic development within a couple of months. At every level, there are so many great people. I strongly relate to this idea of creating better treatments for people, and I think that’s emphasized here in the ethos of the University and especially within the Eshelman School of Pharmacy.”