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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / April 2017 / March Your Own Science Path

March Your Own Science Path

Career Story by Alex Huang, Ph.D., Associate Director & Senior Scientist, Genentech

My career path, though not academic, is hardly “alternative”. With constant soul-searching along the way, I have managed to stick with science and marched in the space of drug discovery and development in pharmaceutical industry.  It is definitely not a straightforward path, contrary to what people often perceive.  There were numerous moments of uncertainties. Nevertheless, it has been a rewarding journey so far.

After graduating with a doctoral degree in Microbiology and Immunology in 2002 from School of Medicine and Dentistry, I landed a post-doctoral training opportunity with Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF) in San Diego, where I observed, learned, and applied the budding High Throughput Screening (HTS) technologies first hand.  For the first time, I was exposed to an ambitious scientific and engineering undertaking that could potentially advance discoveries at scale.

In 2006, with extensive networking based on my post-doctoral work, I found my first “real” job and joined the initiative to target oncogenic developmental signaling pathways at Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR) in Cambridge. With the team, we identified Tankyrase as the first novel druggable node in the Wnt pathway.  As icing on the cake, I got to publish these findings in Nature as the lead author. It not only established my value in the NIBR network, but also built my reputation as a credible drug hunter in the field.  Yearning to learn outside the field of target identification and validation, I asked for the opportunity to head the E3 ligase platform and lead an E3 ligase drug discovery program.  By taking several innovative approaches to differentiate our efforts from traditional pitfalls in targeting E3 ligases, the team and I successfully advanced the program to the lead nomination stage.

Looking to advance further into later segments of drug discovery, I joined Sanofi Oncology in Cambridge in 2010 and led a team to advance a drug discovery program from lead optimization to developmental candidate selection stage (pre-IND). In this role, in addition to leading the team to assess compound pharmacological properties and safety profiles to find a suitable agent for human trials, I also spearheaded translational research to establish clinical paths and patient stratification strategy through in-depth mechanistic studies, predictive/PD biomarkers, and responder signature discovery. These results were later published in the journal Blood. Fortunately, the program also achieved its projected milestone in 2013.  

As I was contemplating the next step of my career, Genentech offered an opportunity to be an integral part of an immense translational medicine effort in clinical trials. Prompted by the desire to fill the gap of my R&D know-how (i.e. lacking hands-on clinical development experience) and the curiosity to learn the culture of Genentech as a premier drug discovery and development organization, I joined Oncology Biomarker Development at Genentech in 2013.  After more than 3 years at Genentech, I now manage a group of 12 individuals comprised of talented Scientists, Sr. Scientific Managers and Scientific Researchers, as well as oversee biomarker strategies of 11 pre-IND and early clinical development programs. These programs consist of therapeutic modalities including small molecules, therapeutic antibodies, antibody drug conjugates, and T-cell dependent bi-specific antibodies (TDB), covering biology relevant to signaling pathways, epigenetics, and tumor immunity modulators.

I am also the Biomarker Subteam Leader for two Phase I clinical programs, accountable for translational research objectives in Phase Ia/Ib single agent and combination trials. Objectives include confirmation of molecular MoA, identification, implementation, and execution of predictive biomarker strategies, interrogation of resistant mechanisms, proposal of evidence-based combination therapies, as well as expansion of clinical indications. Recently, I took an additional role as the head of the GI Cancer Biomarker Strategy Team that covers hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), colorectal cancer (CRC), gastric cancer, pancreatic cancer, and esophageal cancer. Our goal is to harmonize gastrointestinal (GI) cancer biomarker efforts, assay format, and analyses throughout relevant clinical trials and biomarker studies in early stage development, late stage development, and medical affair. 

Join me on May 5 at 9:30 am in the 1W-509 Craytor & McNerney Classroom in Helen Wood Hall to discuss more about potential career opportunities in pharmaceutical R&D and what it might take to be competitive in this space.

Tracey Baas | 4/26/2017

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