Medicine by design

The biggest miracle of modern medicine? Targeted treatment. ZIS alumni are leading the charge.

Antibiotics. Immunotherapy. Antivirals. Medical imaging. The 20th century saw an unparalleled pharmaceutical revolution, saving countless lives. But the next stages of development may be even more rapid and extraordinary. From gene therapy to lab-grown cells, mRNA vaccine technology to AI disease detection, world-changing innovation is happening in the life sciences industry every day. And this is just the beginning.

“There are so many unanswered questions,” says life sciences consultant Kipras Undzenas, Class of 2018 (2015-18). “You never know what the next one will be. There are amazing successes: the pandemic, particularly, demonstrated how important it is to collaborate quickly to make a vaccine for the whole world. Yet every month we hear about big drug trials that have failed. How did that happen? Why did that happen? What can we learn? It never stops.”

Professor Nicola Stoner, Class of 1984 (1979-84), became England’s first Consultant Cancer Pharmacist in 2007. She says the future is so exciting thanks to the new lines of treatment now available. “I love working in cancer because we have so many new drugs coming through all the time,” says Nicola, who currently leads a team of 48 people providing cancer pharmacy services at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust – one of the biggest trusts in the UK. “There is a lot of investment in cancer drugs across the world, and these drugs are becoming more and more targeted. We are keeping patients alive for longer.”

A career in pharmacy, says Nicola, is so much more than dispensing in a pharmacy store – though, of course, community pharmacists play an incredibly important role, particularly during the Covid pandemic and the recently launched Pharmacy First services in England, which enables patients to get treatment for seven common conditions directly from their local pharmacy, without the need for a GP appointment or prescription. “I think careers in hospital pharmacy are exciting and varied, and you can work in any discipline. You can rotate across disciplines, taking a path that leads to chief pharmacist or consultant pharmacist. Or you could go into research, or the pharmaceutical industry. We are also starting to target patient treatments aligned with their genetics. That will be a really novel and interesting role for pharmacists in the future.”

The life sciences industry is vast, with many different pathways and specialisms – and, surprisingly for those interested in entering, you don’t always need a science degree. Felix Baldauf-Lenschen, Class of 2010 (2006-10) is founder and CEO at Altis Labs, an AI company that works with pharmaceutical companies to help measure the efficacy of their drugs more accurately. He studied Economics at Colby College in the US and then worked for investment firm Cambridge Association in San Francisco.

ZIS Science and Innovation Exhibition a success

ZIS is focused on making STEM engaging by integrating project-based STEM learning through curricular and co-curricular experiences. The inaugural Science and Innovation Exhibition in April showcased success, from student projects in Physics, Chemistry and Life Sciences to F1 in Schools and robotics competitions.

It was, he says, a hugely exciting time in Silicon Valley, as new AI applications in medicine began to emerge. Venture capitalists grasped their potential, and so did Felix. In 2016, he joined Enlitic, a company that pioneered the use of deep learning for radiological imaging. He learned about the importance of imaging in measuring treatment response, and realised that better tools were needed to improve the economics of drug development, which are constrained by significant clinical trial costs, timelines, and failure rates. Three years later, he founded Altis Labs, based in Toronto, with one aim: to help get the best drugs to market sooner.

He says that the life sciences need people who can work at the intersection of entrepreneurship, health and tech. “At Altis, we look upon ourselves as a tech company. We write code: that’s our product. We don’t have any lab space. But other key aspects of our business include data curation, AI research, radiology and biostatics. All these fields are now using tech in different ways. And then you need the business side – to set the vision, execute a plan and sell the product.”

Those with deep specialisms and expertise are, of course, absolutely crucial – but so are those who can take the wide view. “Being across all those different areas and bringing in smart people who are experts in their field is what gets me excited,” says Felix. “There is obviously so much more to explore across different disease areas. Our initial focus has been in lung cancer – the leading cause of cancer mortality – and we are now expanding into other cancer types and beyond to respiratory, cardiovascular disease and neurogenerative diseases.”

Although Kipras has a science degree – an integrated Master’s in Biochemistry from University College London – he knew that working in a lab wasn’t for him. Instead, he joined the London office of life sciences consultancy firm Kx Advisors. Consulting, he points out, is a fast-moving, client-facing and collaborative role. “One of the things that pushed me away from labs and research was the inherently slow process. Research cannot go fast: that’s just how it is. You work by yourself a lot. As a consultant, while you do need to work independently, you also need to come together as a team to discuss findings and communicate them effectively."

Certain qualities are vital – curiosity and initiative, being a team player... and patience

He sees life sciences consulting as the perfect stepping stone. “You’re introduced to the questions that the life sciences industry tries to answer, so you get a good knowledge of what you need to know to be in the industry. Take gene therapies, for example – they are very expensive. So what’s the actual price of treating the patient over 40 years versus giving this one gene therapy?” In the future, he’s hoping to move to the client side, in a pharma or a biotech company. “I want to help create these new drugs that might save more patients, that might be more affordable, and will push the boundaries further.”

Life sciences consulting certainly gave Miguel Campos Silva, Class of 2009 (2005-09), Strategy Director at OMass Therapeutics, the commercial experience he needed for his current role. After he gained his BSc in Biochemistry at the University of St Andrews and MSc in International Health Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, he became a specialist life sciences consultant at consulting firm Navigant, working on projects for large pharmaceutical companies, before moving to OMass Therapeutics. It’s an early stage biotech company based in Oxford, England, that uses an innovative technique – native mass spectrometry – to search for new medicines for immune-system related conditions and other rare diseases. The company currently has six products in the pipeline, including treatments for epilepsy, lupus and inflammatory bowel disease.

“My job is to try and match a scientist’s idea with its best real-world application, and see if that makes sense from a commercial perspective,” Miguel explains. “For example, a scientist might want to create a drug to target a particular protein in the body. OK, so what does that protein do in the body? Have other drugs tried to do this? Have they been successful? If not, why do we think our drug is better?”

The best thing about his job, he says, is “making sense of lots of different data scattered around. There’s no better feeling than reading papers, doing analysis and connecting all the dots. Every day, you’re reading about new potential applications, about people trying to come up with new medicines. That’s what drives me and the company. Ultimately, we want to bring these medicines to patients.” Plus, he enjoys the business insight that comes from working for a small biotech. “I wear a lot of hats – for example, I also run our comms and social media, which I never thought I’d do!”

But whatever pathway you take – and whether you choose to work in the lab or in the boardroom, or both – certain qualities are vital. “Curiosity and initiative, first and foremost,” says Felix. “At school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do long term, but I knew there were some topics that I was interested in. The opportunities offered by the internship program were fantastic, however: it allowed me to get a head start with relevant and real work experience in finance before any of my university classmates. It was learning by doing.

That gave me options.” Nicola says being a team player is crucial – as is a willingness to work hard. “You’ve got to put the hard work in, be conscientious, and go the extra mile.” And patience is key in an industry where just one in ten drugs in clinical trials actually make it to market.

Expertise, tech and ingenuity may well solve many of these mysteries in the next 100 years. But in the life sciences, there will always be a new answer to seek.