BBIE 2019: Stanford alumni work with firms, institutions, to realize the promise of precision medicine
“We are optimizing for different parts of the biomedical spectrum.”
Martin Stumpe, Senior Vice President of Data Science, Tempus
By Nadine Taylor-Barnes
June 26, 2019
Animated discussions about precision medicine, artificial intelligence, translational research, and drug discovery filled the room at the LKSC during the 20th annual Biomedical & Biosciences Industry Expo (BBIE) in early April. Many Stanford alumni were among the representatives from an array of institutions, and, like explorers returning from their journeys, they were excited to share with current trainees their tales — tales about the conduct of science in biotechnology, biopharmaceuticals, consulting, government, law and academia.
Stanford’s Martin Stumpe, PhD, Stanford postdoc 2011, Senior Vice President of Data Science at Tempus, summed up the importance of this expo saying it helps educate Biosciences trainees about the existence of diverse career opportunities and the public and private sectors’ great need for their critical analytical and research skills.
“For the discoveries to translate into something that impacts people’s lives, we need both basic research and industry,” said Stumpe. “We are optimizing for different parts of the spectrum.” Stumpe hails from an academic background steeped in computational & theoretical physics and biophysics and then moved into cancer informatics in the private sector.
He went on to explain. “On one hand, we need to advance the knowledge of basic fundamentals, with its broad-based focus and freedom from constraints, but, on the other hand, we need industry’s highly-targeted approach and rigor to make the medical advances happen,” he said.
Michael Henderson, MD, 2015, BridgeBio, said, “There are many ways to use science. I wanted to use my medical training to find important drugs.” While doing research in dermatology in medical school, he discovered that a hedgehog inhibitor could be used for dermatological applications and co-founded a small company PellePharm for rare dermatological diseases. “I want to create more companies like that.”
Another alumnus Vikram Bali, BS, MS, chemical engineering 2010,BridgeBio agreed. “There is a lot of great scientific work for rare diseases that doesn’t make it out of academia. Our founder Neil Kumar, PhD, Stanford BS, MS, chemical engineering 2002, identified this void in the pharmaceutical industry for the development of drugs treating rare, genetically-driven diseases and created our company. We want to find those discoveries in the labs and advance them through the process from the bench to the bedside,” said Bali.
“Whichever path you select, academia or industry,” said Cameron Andrews, BS, biomedical computation, 2018, and Co-founder and CEO at Sirona, “Biosciences trainees should understand the broader narrative of medical research, and how valuable, discrete, research efforts fit into this narrative. Even if you pursue academic research as a life-long career, you still need that higher-order perspective to understand how the research can be ultimately applied. You need to understand what the world of industry cares about and is working to commercialize.”
Morgan Moncada, BS, Biology with Honors, 2013, echoed this sentiment. Originally a pre-med student, Moncada discovered that he wanted to pursue not only the life sciences but also entrepreneurship. He came to realize that perhaps he could have both by working in biotech, evolving from business development into the product lead at Aromyx, the first company to digitize scent. “I am able to apply creativity and entrepreneurship to solve difficult problems in the life sciences,” said Moncada. “It’s the best of both worlds.”
Stephanie Eberle, assistant dean, BioSci Careers, agreed with the alumni comments about educating trainees and said BBIE is one of the largest and most important events that her department hosts. Trainee-alumni connections figure prominently in the equation.
“Connections are the number one way in which people identify and follow their career of choice, and our trainees make the highest number of connections at BBIE.”
Eberle pointed out that this event forges stronger alumni-trainee mentoring relationships and on-going involvement with a number of firms who are planning alumni chats, industry insights, industry on-sites, consulting presentations, and the creation of new internship and fellowships.
“Our level of involvement with these biomedical firms is growing rapidly,” she said.
Abundance of opportunities
School of Medicine graduate students, postdocs, and medical students crowded around the tables, peppering the reps with questions about their institutions’ research. Impromptu discussion circles sprang up in the aisles, and companies recruited candidates for positions and new fellowship and internship opportunities.
As a clinical stage biopharmaceutical company, BridgeBio has deployed a new business model to conduct drug discovery efficiently. Bali, Associate at BridgeBio, described how the firm’s scientists work with universities and academic medical centers searching for novel discoveries that can treat a disease at its source. Upon identifying a potential drug asset, they create a dedicated entrepreneurial unit – encompassing business and scientific expertise — around that asset and give the scientists access to centralized resources. “We create a single biotech unit for a single drug,” he said.
“BridgeBio is an ideal partner for academicians,” said Henderson. “Our scientists wake up and go to sleep thinking about one drug. This way, we can bring a drug to market in half the time, at half the cost.” Henderson, who is Senior Vice President for Strategy, Operations & Asset Acquisitions, pointed to the company Eidos as an example. We took research from the Stanford lab in 2016, formed a public company, and are now conducting Phase III clinical trials. BridgeBio, which began in 2015 with two drug assets from Stanford’s SPARK program, now has 15 drug programs targeting 20 genetic diseases.
Stumpe described how he made the transition from biophysics to cancer research at Tempus. “Cancer research became my calling, when both of my parents were diagnosed with it.” He said Tempus seeks to accelerate cancer research and treatment, first, by applying artificial intelligence to analyze extremely large-scale data sets; and, second, by discovering insights and providing treatment options to physicians.
The data sets encompass many different forms of molecular and clinical data, including: genomic data, proteomic data, imaging scans, pathology reports, lab reports, clinical records and outcomes data. Currently, he said, Tempus is working with more than 50 National Cancer Institute cancer centers. Across its products, the company touches more than 25% of cancer patients in the U.S.
“We have the enormous capability to analyze a very large number of patient outcomes to influence future treatment decisions. Cancer is a hundred different diseases, and each patient responds differently to each line of therapy. It is important to know which drugs, and in which combination and sequence, the therapeutics have to be given.” Just this month, Tempus opened a Bay Area office and is seeking biomedicine data scientists, computational biologists, and medical students.
Andrews is working with an all-Stanford cast at Sirona, founded in 2018, that is using AI and machine learning for diagnostic radiology in orthopedics. “I work with a team of doctors to build machine learning models to assist radiologists with their diagnoses. We hope to speed their workflow.” Currently, Sirona has access to more than 10 million advanced imaging cases through their partnerships. Andrews’ initial interest in radiology harkens back to his grandfather who is a radiologist. While at Stanford, Andrews did research in the Barres neurology lab and worked for Lux Capital, a venture capital firm, applying AI and machine learning in medicine.
Aromyx, a fifteen-person start-up from Stanford’s StartX Accelerator program, has developed a unique biosensor chip and sensory data technology. Moncada spoke about the task ahead for Aromyx, “We are digitizing the biology of smell so this sensory data can be manipulated in much the same way that visual and sound data are communicated today. The applications for this technology span many industries ranging from healthcare and pharmaceuticals to consumer goods.”
As product lead, Moncada enthusiastically described how the chip technology digitally captures the human sense of smell via human olfactory receptors bioengineered into yeast and mammalian expression systems. “These receptors function as unique sensors, each capable of triggering a signal transduction pathway resulting in sensory data that can be read,” he said. “Essentially, these receptors act as chemical detectors and can be used in applications to distinguish more than one trillion combinations of scents/smells to design new products, detect diseases, including multiple forms of cancer, identify pathogens in foods, and monitor the quality control of products.”
Beyond these applications, however, there are many potential applications for new olfactory receptor-targeting therapeutics that impact mood, memory, and metabolism. “Since Olfaction is directly linked to memory, emotion and metabolism in key brain regions, and if we understand the underlying olfactory receptors that stimulate those sensations,” Moncada pointed out, “then we can identify natural or synthetic compounds that can target physiological processes such as, addiction, satiety, relaxation, and the consolidation of memories.”
Karolinska Institutet of Stockholm, Sweden
The prestigious Karolinska Institutet made its debut at BBIE this year, as it celebrated the recent opening of its new BioMedicum, one of Europe’s largest and most advanced research institutes. Known as the institution, which houses the separate entity of 50 Karolinska professors that elects the annual Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology, Karolinska has a new strategic biomedical focus and is searching for postdoctoral candidates. Currently, there are tentative plans for a visit to Stanford later this year.
“Karolinska is an incredible ecosystem of 4,000 researchers,“ said Stanford’s Vivian Ho, who is associated with Marie Arsenian-Henriksson’s group at Karolinska’s Microbiology, Tumor and Cell Biology (MTC) division. “Couple this global talent with the new BioMedicum facility, and the increased potential for extraordinary scientific research that will benefit the world at large is inspiring,” said Ho.
The Biomedicum has five critical departments: neuroscience; microbiology, tumor & cell biology; physiology & pharmacology; medical biochemistry & biophysics; and cell & molecular biology housed together in a space specifically designed for interdisciplinary experimental research and collaboration. It has a direct link to BioClinicum, the clinical research organization at Karolinska University Hospital, to help speed translational research.
Ho said that a number of Stanford Medicine faculty and researchers have already done rotational postdoctoral work at Karolinska, “and in my small role, I’m here to build more bridges to Stanford and connect world-class talent between two incredible institutions.” Ho, an alumna of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, pursued a career in management consulting, international health, and global health philanthropy.
“Karolinska offers an amazing opportunity for collaboration across disciplines, including two major medical centers/hospitals, strong mentorship, and industry partnerships,” she said. “And remarkable leaders such as Marie Arsenian-Henriksson, PhD, Professor and Research Group Leader at MTC, and Anders Gustafsson, DDS, PhD, Dean of Research at Karolinska, believe in advancing research through global collaborations.” Ho is working with BioSci Careers to bring Arsenian-Henriksson and Gustafsson to Stanford this fall to share more about Karolinska’s vision and institutional focus going forward.
During the last five years, Ho has become more involved with the MTC division physicians and scientists and meeting with Karolinska university and medical center leaders. “I am honored to be able to play a small part in bringing forth talent that is solving some of the world’s most intractable diseases.”
Longtime BBIE corporate supporters were also present. Promidian Consulting is offering a new internship, and Genentech is offering a unique clinical science fellowship in late stage clinical research. Sandia National Laboratories discussed their government programs in bio-defense, the detection of pathogens in infectious diseases, and bio-fuels research. Morrison Foerster, one of the nation’s top intellectual property law firms, as well as, consulting firms: Charles River Associates, Healthcare Consultancy Group, IQVIA, and L.E.K. were present. Major biotech, genomics and pharmaceutical firms, abbvie, AMGEN, ancestry, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Calico, Gilead, Johnson & Johnson, Miltenyi Biotec, pharmacyclics, 23andMe, Verseon, met with many trainees.
What did our trainees think?
Paul Hoerbelt, postdoc, psychiatry & behavioral sciences, in Rob Malenka’s neuroscience lab, said he has been considering a career in consulting after hearing from lab peers, who had joined such firms. Hoerbelt, who is studying how neuromodulatory systems govern long-term changes in neural signaling, anxiety and reward-associated behaviors, initially tested this interest in industry by joining the Advanced Degree Consulting Club. He also completed consulting projects for the Bay Area Biotech Connection that works with local companies. His projects involved drug discovery and establishing protocols for analysis of brain pathways in neuroscience research.
“It’s great to be at the bench,” he said, “but I realized that there is great pride and an immediate sense of fulfillment in producing treatments that help people.”
Hoerbelt was pleasantly surprised upon finding out that he was immediately able to apply his skill set – his in-depth field knowledge and analytical techniques — to the consulting assignments. “All the skills are transferable,” he said. “And I like to dive into the other side; I like working with real patient data and real medical cases.” Hoerbelt is considering a range of opportunities, including consulting for biotech firms, being a medical science liaison, or heading up an academic lab in the future.
Fifth year graduate students Andrew McKay, of Anne Brunet’s lab, and Ariana Sanchez of Jessica Feldman’s lab, came to BBIE partly out of curiosity and partly because the expo was held on the medical school campus. They were a little hesitant, unsure of how their research background could actually apply to any of the positions the biomedical firms were offering.
“It’s our first expo,” said Sanchez, “and I dragged him along,” she said smiling, looking sideways at McKay. “Our primary reason for coming is we wanted to understand if and how our skill sets align with what the companies are looking for. We can offer our body of specialized knowledge and our long-term project management skills,” said Sanchez.
They said they wanted to see actual opportunities. “It was good to see the specific jobs being offered,” said McKay, who holds an undergraduate degree in economics and may consider health sciences communications in the private sector. They said they both became interested in the prospect of doing internships, provided they were salaried. They are.
For the first time, trainees from UCSF attended the expo. One cellular & molecular pharmacology postdoc Jiongyi Tan commented, “We wanted to come and talk to the companies and find out specifically how they could use our training. Email descriptions are just not enough,” he said. “We wanted to actually talk to researchers, who are now at these companies, and understand exactly what their roles are. It was very reassuring.”
Eberle believes the expo was a success citing the almost 300 attendees and the flurry of follow-on activities among trainees, alumni and companies.
“It’s a win for everyone. These events help trainees and employers maximize their search,” she said.
Trainees can learn about their options early in their training — or they can find positions and internships later in their training,” Eberle said. Employers benefit too from the one-on-one contact with prospective candidates.
And, as Stumpe said smiling, “Here, we have the chance of finding the right people.”
The alumni explorer-scientists returned to campus excited to tell the Stanford community about their journeys and show them their treasures — not the proverbial treasure of earlier times — but rather the new age currency of algorithms, engineered molecules, genes, antibodies, and medications.