Dr. Philip A. Rea

Man smiling

Faculty Co-Director

Professor of Biology, School of Arts and Sciences
Rebecka and Arie Belldegrun Distinguished Director


Philip A. Rea is a Professor of Biology in the Department of Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences, and Rebecka and Arie Belldegrun Distinguished Director of the Life Sciences and Management Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Together with Dr. Mark V. Pauly, he founded the Roy and Diana Vagelos Life Sciences and Management Program in 2005, which he continues to co-direct.  Dr. Rea received his D.Phil. in Plant Biochemistry from the Department of Plant Sciences and Magdalen College, University of Oxford, UK. Shortly before joining Penn’s faculty, he was a Group Leader in the Department of Biochemistry, Rothamsted Research (formerly known as the Institute of Arable Crops Research), one of the oldest agricultural research institutions in the world.

Dr. Rea’s primary research has been directed toward understanding a broad range of transport and related phenomena with special emphasis on alternate energy sources and cellular detoxification processes. He and his group have made major contributions toward understanding a remarkably broad range of biological transport and related phenomena through their foundational investigations of vacuolar proton pumps, plant and yeast ATP-binding cassette (ABC) transporters, and the enzymological basis of heavy metal detoxification.

Dr. Rea's current secondary research at the interface of life sciences and their implementation focuses on case studies that highlight the difficult transition from discovery in the laboratory to success in the market and/or toward the expansion of humanitarian efforts.  Examples of such case studies are ‘Statins: from fungus to pharma’, ‘Ivermectin and river blindness’, 'Can skinny fat beat obesity?', 'Metformin: out of backwaters and into the mainstream', and ‘How glyphosate cropped up’ – five feature articles aimed primarily at the educated lay reader.

The impetus for preparing the statins article was a sense that material of this nature would be of immense interest to educated members of the general public because it is an example of how our understanding of cardiovascular disease has undergone radical revision, and in so doing given us a better understanding of how statins do what they do (something that would not have happened if not for the introduction of these drugs) and how a serendipitous discovery with striking parallels to the discovery of the penicillins is quite possibly one of the most significant biomedical accomplishments of the twentieth century.

The need for the second feature article on ivermectin came from the realization that despite the immensity of the river blindness problem very few of us in this part of the world know of the disease’s existence, and even fewer know of the connection between it and something that most of us know something about, the ‘deworming tablets we give to pets and livestock to protect them from heartworm and similar parasitic infections.

The third feature article is an up-to-date account of the roles played by brown and beige fat ('skinny fat') in keeping white fat, a surplus of which is associated with cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and the metabolic syndrome, at bay. Whether the readers are themselves overweight or know others who are, this article is of general interest because it encompasses several unprecedented discoveries made only in the last few years which when explained provide readers with a platform for better understanding the role played by classical brown fat in newborns and hibernating mammals, and how it might eventually be used to combat obesity.

The fourth feature article on metformin is especially intriguing because it deals with a drug that has come to assume prominence despite a checkered history. Its story has many ramifications, and is filled with delays, uncertainties, and dead ends, as well as fortuitous accidents. It is a drug, born of folklore, with reasonably well-established clinical benefits whose precise mechanism of action has until very recently resisted definition.  Metformin is the current standard of care for the treatment of one of the most common chronic conditions in the modern world – type 2 diabetes – and its structure is remarkably simple by comparison with that of many other drugs.

In a similar vein, one of Dr. Rea’s most recent feature articles, on glyphosate is concerned with the most important herbicide of all time based on the billions of kilograms that have been applied to croplands worldwide.  Yet what could be more improbable a scenario in the light of the success of this herbicide, better known as Roundup, than its accidental discovery, as a modified amino acid no bigger than glucose, with a structure so refined that barely any of its substituents are superfluous, that targets with catastrophic consequences an enzyme in a crucial pathway, the shikimate pathway, that we lack but which is indispensable for plant function?

An extension of these research activities is the book Managing Discovery in the Life Sciences. Harnessing Creativity to Drive Biomedical Innovation (2018), Cambridge University Press).  In this book, Dr. Rea co-authored with his colleagues Mark V. Pauly and Lawton R. Burns, case studies of biomedical innovations are presented whereby the reader comes to better understand how the science actually played out through the interplay of personalities and cultures within and between academic and corporate entities and the significance of serendipity not as a mysterious phenomenon but one that is intrinsic to the successes and failures of the experimental approach.  

'Basic understanding' is Dr. Rea's watchword for his teaching as exemplified by LSMP 1210 (formerly 121) – Proseminar in Management and the Life Sciences, and BIOL 2810 (formerly 204) – Biochemistry.  He has a reputation as a dynamic and compelling lecturer, involving students in problem solving and the struggle to extract meaningful information from the incomplete data sets that inevitably confront researchers. At the outset of Rea’s undergraduate career, the thing that most inspired him was the realization that the people who were teaching him were active scientists who had directly contributed to the subject they were teaching through their research. This discovery, hand in hand with recognition that even his teachers, though active in the field, could not answer many of the basic questions and were prepared to admit to this, filled him with admiration for their humility and impelled him to learn more so that he might have the opportunity to tackle some of these questions himself. Rea would like to think that a few of the students with whom he comes into contact are similarly affected by his efforts and those of his colleagues.

Dr. Rea, who has published more than 100 papers and co-authored two books, was awarded the President's Medal of the Society for Experimental Biology, UK for his pioneering investigations of plant membrane transporters, has been a corecipient of the National Academies Cozzarelli Prize for the publication of a paper of outstanding scientific excellence and originality, and is an elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for outstanding fundamental research discoveries on the membrane transport and detoxification of xenobiotics, and for distinguished accomplishments and creativity in science education. He is a National Academies Education Fellow in the Life Sciences whose teaching has been recognized by the Ira H. Abrams Memorial Award for Distinguished Teaching, the College of Arts and Sciences’ highest teaching honor, the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching, the University's highest teaching honor, the Wharton Teaching Excellence Award, and four times by the Department of Biology’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.  In recognition of his seminal biochemical research, and dedication and devotion to teaching, science-communication, and mentorship, Dr. Rea was awarded a higher doctorate, Doctorate of Science (D.Sc.), by his alma mater the University of Oxford.