As a child growing up in Chicago, Ill., Corey Goodman was always interested in science. The realization that he wanted to become a research scientist didn’t fully crystalize, however, until the summer after his junior year of high school, when he attended the summer NSF student program at the Jackson Laboratory in Maine. His research there on mouse genetics so impressed the laboratory’s director, they he shipped mutant mice to Goodman at his high school (where he had his “own little independent laboratory”) so he could continue the work during his senior year.
A G.D. Searle Foundation Scholarship enabled Goodman to enroll at Stanford University as a biology major in 1968. “My parents were not super well off,” he says. “I couldn’t have gone there without the foundation’s aid.” Goodman’s academic advisor at Stanford was neurobiologist (and future president of Stanford) Donald Kennedy. “He was my major mentor throughout my career,” says Goodman, who did research for several years in Kennedy’s lab. “He was a wonderful role model.”
Goodman received a PhD in neurobiology from the University of California, Berkeley, and then accepted a postdoctoral fellowship as a Helen Hay Whitney Fellow at the University of California, San Diego, in the lab of neurobiologist Nicholas Spitzer, one of the few people at that time who was studying neural development in living embryos. Working with grasshopper embryos, Goodman began what he says was “my dream from my undergraduate days”—to investigate the cellular and molecular logic behind how the axons of neurons use their leading tips (growth cones) to find their targets in the developing nervous system, a process known as axon guidance. In papers co-authored with Spitzer, Goodman first described the pathway by which neuroblasts (primitive nerve cells) turn into neurons and described the temporal pattern of how individual identified neurons acquire specific properties during neural development.
Axon guidance remained Goodman’s main fascination, and when he opened his own lab—first at Stanford in 1979 and later at the University of California, Berkeley in 1988—he expanded his focus on growth cone guidance to include the fruit fly (Drosophila). “I wanted to use the power of genetics to understand what controls the wiring of the nervous system,” he says, “and the fruit fly seemed like the perfect place to conduct those screens. We knew there was some kind of molecular logic that let nerve cells make the right guidance choices and the right connections, but we knew little about that process.” That soon changed. Over the next decade, using genetic screens, Goodman and his colleagues made a series of pioneering discoveries that helped to break open the field of axon guidance. For example, using invertebrate molecular and genetic approaches, he identified an important family of axon guidance cues, Semaphorins (independently discovered in chicks as well), and their Plexin receptors, as well as the guidance repellent Slit and its Roundabout (Robo) receptors. Focusing on a single choice point, guidance to and across the midline, he discovered the dynamic changes of the Robo receptor as growth cones reprogram their migration to move away from the midline, and a key gene, Commisureless (Comm), that controls the dynamic expression of Robo at the midline. Others have gone on to discover the proteins in mammals that play the same role in regulating Robo expression on commissural axons before they reach the midline. He and his colleagues also performed a parallel genetic screen for mutants that perturb motor axon guidance toward their muscle targets, which led to the discovery of a peripheral pathway label (Side) and its motor axon receptor (Beat), molecules others subsequently showed define gene families involved in axonal guidance along pathways toward their targets.
Goodman’s lab often worked in parallel with that of his colleague, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, first at the University of California, San Francisco, and then at Stanford, who was investigating some of the same axon guidance mechanisms in vertebrates. Their independent and collaborative work helped underscore that the molecules that guide axons during development are highly conserved throughout the animal kingdom. Together, they showed how contact attraction, chemoattraction, contact repulsion, and chemorepulsion act simultaneously and in a coordinated manner to direct axon guidance.
In 2001, Goodman took a leave of absence from academia to become Chief Executive Officer of a biotechnology company that he and Tessier-Lavigne had founded. “I wanted to apply basic science to human health,” he says. “I wanted to take on new challenges to develop therapies for unmet medical needs.” He has launched many other biotechnology companies since then, and also led the Biotherapeutics and Bioinnovation Center at Pfizer Inc., which he founded in the late 2000s. Goodman is currently a managing partner of venBio Partners, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm he co-founded that focuses on innovative therapeutics for major unmet medical needs. venBio, launched in 2011, already has three approved drugs helping to save and improve lives, including an antibody for chronic migraine that was approved by the FDA in 2018. He also continues to teach neuroscience graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley as an adjunct professor.
Goodman has received numerous honors and awards during his career, including memberships in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, as well as the Fondation IPSEN prize for “axon guidance” with Friedrich Bonhoeffer and Marc Tessier-Lavigne. He is also renowned for his work as a mentor and leader in the scientific community, and has served on numerous advisory panels, including as chair of the California Council on Science and Technology and the National Research Council’s Board on Life Sciences. Goodman is married to Marcia Barinaga, a former biologist, science writer, and west coast bureau head for Science Magazine. They have a sheep ranch about 50 miles north of San Francisco, where Goodman spends his weekends relaxing by playing jazz on a 104-year-old grand piano.