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Business & Regulation Profession, Advanced Medicine, Translational Science

The Interface Between Art and Science

What influenced your early career?

As a young scientist, I had the pleasure of meeting and learning from industry heavy-weights. I applied to do my doctoral research at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, UK, but they were reluctant to take me on because as a student with training in psychology, what could I possibly know about molecular biology and its applications? I believed that my psychology training and medical background set me apart and allowed me to see things from a different, fresher perspective. They must have thought so too, because they took me on!

At the time, I didn’t realize how privileged I was. On my first day, I had tea with three Nobel Prize winners, Max Perutz, César Milstein and Fred Sanger. And over the course of my time there, I came to know several others, including Sydney Brenner and Aaron Klug. LMB was filled with men and women who had and were revolutionizing the field. It was surreal. Everywhere I turned, I found a new source of inspiration. It pushed me to strive for the best throughout my career.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

My doctoral thesis focused on the natural and artificial forms of Cluster of Differentiation (CD-1). My supervisor, César Milstein, was the creator of monoclonal antibodies. During my time working under him, we were able to demonstrate that the aggregation of proteins in the cells of patients with Huntington’s disease contributed to its disease pathology; we patented a method for protein folding and ended up making the first CD-1 tetramers.

These were massive achievements for me, but Milstein sought out the most inconspicuous and minute aspects of our investigation. I had a tendency to fixate on the obvious, but he would remind me to look at the total picture – interrogating the areas of uncertainty in our work that would help bring about the best outcomes for us. That mental process made me approach my work differently and led to the discovery of soluble cluster differentiation antigens.

We measured soluble CD antigens in the blood and showed that different diseases had different soluble signatures of these antigens. We were years ahead of the biomarker field as the technology to quantify our discovery hadn’t yet been developed.

How did you find the transition to industry?

The work I was doing with Milstein and his idea that the state of the immune system predicted the disease state helped us anticipate the explosion of the immuno-oncology field. In 2003, we founded ProteinLogic. ProteinLogic uses ImmiPrint, a diagnostic platform inspired by our discovery, to perform diagnostic testing for personalized medicine. 

I was excited by the cut and thrust of the biotech space, but I was limited in how much I interacted with industry and I wanted to learn more. By chance, my brother’s friend, who was a headhunter, told me about a position at Bristol-Myers Squibb. They were looking for an oncology specialist to join their operations. I thought it would be fun to go along and speak to them. Soon after, I found myself accepting the job and launching their chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) program in the UK. Before long, I was transferred to their European team and then onto global operations.

It was a completely different environment than medicine. In a hospital, I would be rushed off my feet trying to do my best to see patients. By contrast, working in industry meant that much of my time was spent sitting behind a desk, but by no means was it boring! I was constantly meeting interesting people and was fortunate to learn from brilliant marketers.

At the time, we were focused on tyrosine kinase inhibitor therapies for CML. It was the first cancer where you could directly and causally show chromosomal abnormalities, so it was a great grounding experience and helped me settle into the industry.

Why move to Sangamo?

Before joining Sangamo, I spent 10 years in big pharma. I accepted a position at Pfizer in 2013 as the global head of immuno-oncology and haematology. The experience was great, but I had a desire to get back into gene editing. I knew about the work Sangamo was doing and had followed them quite closely. They were the first in the world to edit human cells and to conduct clinical trials on gene-edited T cells.

Out of the blue, I learned about a position with the company and it turned out to be my dream job! It was particularly interesting because it combined clinical development and science. I felt like a kid in a toy shop – Sangamo’s pipeline has lots of diversity and optionality – and honestly, it’s exciting! Sandy Macrae, our CEO, has an incredible vision for the company – his ambition and high-energy personality were motivators for me.

What are your current goals?

I want to help Sandy to keep pushing the boundaries of science and biotechnology, while simultaneously maintaining a portfolio of safe projects that have a high likelihood of technical success, like ex vivo genome editing. Juggling the old and the new is something I love doing; it plays into my creative side and helps us to stay forward-thinking. 

Our zinc finger platform is proving to be effective in the treatment of disease by engaging with target sites without eliciting off-target effects. People are realizing CRISPR isn’t synonymous with genome editing, and seeing the promise of zinc finger. The applications of the technology are vast and I am interested to see how we will be able to progress our products through the trial stages and into the market.

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About the Author
Maryam Mahdi

Deputy Editor

After finishing my degree, I envisioned a career in science communications. However, life took an unexpected turn and I ended up teaching abroad. Though the experience was amazing and I learned a great deal from it, I jumped at the opportunity to work for Texere. I'm excited to see where this new journey takes me!

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