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Memoir: My Odyssey in Drug Development

Scientific and personal concerns led one investigator’s trek into industry

Memoir: My Odyssey in Drug Development
The author, as a child, with his mother.

Anyone who has spent time in the laboratory knows that research is not a linear process. The scientific question at the outset of a series of experiments is almost certainly not exactly that answered by the end. Success involves both intuition and persistence in applying the scientific method to relevant research questions. The same can be said for the evolution of a scientific career. The trajectory that one takes is not necessarily fixed. Course corrections based on laboratory findings and life experiences along the way represent critical, even welcome, elements in shaping one’s scientific path and destiny.

My fascination with cancer biology began around 1980, when I first learned about the cell cycle. In fact, I focused my undergraduate research on the cell cycle and peptide growth factors and went on to a National Institutes of Health–sponsored M.D.- Ph.D. program to pursue a career both as a doctor and as a laboratory researcher.

I soon found myself at Yale University, where I mostly tolerated the medical school courses and clinical clerkships. My true passion was in the laboratory, where I applied molecular biology techniques to the study of leukemia cell differentiation. The vast creative space open to exploring scientific questions was invigorating and liberating. My labmates and I worked hard, played hard and searched for biological truth.

Paradoxically, my personal life came to a crashing halt when my mother discovered a lump in her breast. I can still picture the utter devastation on my father’s face when he first heard the news. I despaired as well that here I was in medical school and yet I could do very little. My textbooks, I quickly realized, only scratched the surface of what is needed to diagnose and treat patients. What I knew about cancer biology from the laboratory was so remote from patient care. I began reading the seminal papers of Gianni Bonadonna of the National Tumor Institute (Istituto Nazionale Tumori) in Milan, who had just recently described the utility of adjuvant chemotherapy following mastectomy. But mostly I became an observer of my mother’s experience.

As I watched, my mother put herself through what needed to be done. She underwent surgery and started cytotoxic chemotherapy. I will never forget the days of her chemotherapy treatment. The drugs were terribly nauseating. I would often find her lying very still, many times in the middle of the kitchen floor, as she tried to suppress the waves of retching that washed over her. Nevertheless, she diligently drove herself 40 miles to the hospital and back every week even though she knew her treatment would make her feel very sick.

This experience, in the midst of my graduate and medical training, made me reassess what I should spend my life doing. I began to ponder how biomedical research translates into better treatments for patients in need like my mother. My aspiration to publish papers, write grants and build a large laboratory quickly shifted to a desire to understand drug development and translational medicine. This area of focus was still very new and undefined for most laboratory researchers during the 1980s, so I made it my goal to shine a bright light onto this space, because I felt it had the potential to be tremendously impactful.

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