Illustration exploring DNA

Adaptive to change

Advancing personalised healthcare requires an ability to evolve

Published 05 February 2020 (this article first appeared on gene.com)
By Tongtong Wang, PhD, vice president and head of pharma technical development for U.S. Biologics, Genentech.

We’re at the beginning of a personalised healthcare revolution that’s transforming the way treatments are discovered, developed and delivered. We’re beginning to see treatments tailored to individuals, designed specifically to target DNA mutations in cancer cells and to engage the immune system to fight back against a cell’s unique signature.

For my team at Genentech, these advances are making us think in fundamentally different ways about what a medicine is, and how we can best make and deliver it to people in need. The implications of these new technologies cannot be overstated.

I feel honored and prepared to help forge this new path at Genentech because I’ve learned that a big change, though sometimes scary, can lead to growth, learning and great results. The first big change I made in my life was deciding to move from China to the United States for graduate school. I studied biochemistry and molecular biology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, then two years into my thesis followed my advisor to Syracuse University. For my postdoc, I decided to change and focus on genetics and cell biology at Cornell University, using genetically engineered yeast to understand mechanisms of molecular signaling. While I did not know it then, all of these choices and changes would lead me to where I am today.

New Challenges

At that time, The Human Genome Project had generated great hope and excitement in regard to its potential to help create new disease treatments. When an opportunity came to join a small biotech company in Seattle that focused on the development of immunotherapeutics to combat cancer, autoimmune diseases and infectious diseases, I took a leap of faith, and my family moved with me across the country. This was the first of several career moves that could have happened only with the support of my husband, and later my daughter and son.

As a discovery scientist I gained tremendous knowledge in the area of innate and adaptive immunity, working with immunologists on several cancer programs. As the company grew and branched into development, I volunteered to lead its molecular biology, cell line and cell culture development. This was a pivot point as I knew nothing about chemistry, manufacturing or clinical development. Yet I was eager to learn, as the work brought me closer to the people we serve.

A few years later, I had to find a new path when the company was acquired, and decided to make a change again to an established pharmaceutical company, first as a development scientist. Later I assumed multiple technical and managerial roles with increasing responsibility in biologics research and development.

When the opportunity came to lead product development within Genentech’s biotech development team, I was ready and excited by the challenge. I was eager to join the company for its innovative culture and leadership in biologics. The timing was also perfect, as both my daughter and son had finished school.

Innovators Wanted

Since joining Genentech in June 2018, I’ve enjoyed working with a team that has an increasing breadth of expertise, from molecular biologists to cell biologists, biochemists to analytical chemists, microbiologists to virologists and chemical engineers to software, design and industrial engineers. That diverse expertise and knowledge is a foundation for innovation.

In addition to traditional biologics, my team pursues process and technology development to enable a novel class of medicines known as T-cell therapies, collaborating with our cancer immunologists and partner company Adaptive Biotechnologies. In this case, personalised T-cell receptors targeting tumor-specific molecules are engineered into patients’ own immune system, which have the capacity to attack and destroy cancer cells after being infused back to the patients. We’re working on how to “scale” personalised T-cell therapy so that it is safe, efficacious, and can reduce manufacturing costs, with the goal of getting these medicines to the people who need them. Genentech has excelled in traditional biotechnology manufacturing, and now we are working to adapt and lead the manufacturing of these new types of medicines.

As science and technology advances, new data and clinical results from these types of therapies will become available. Clinical and regulatory guidance will evolve quickly. To succeed, teams across the company - early-stage research, product development, manufacturing and clinical operations - must work together synchronously and in different ways than they have in the past. These changes, like the ones I faced throughout my career journey, are shaping an exciting era in the biotech industry. Diseases that are difficult to treat today, such as cancer, could potentially be transformed into chronic illnesses. Still, more work is needed to bring these medicines to more people.

As personalised healthcare evolves, we’ll need to continue developing scientists and engineers from a broad range of backgrounds who can think holistically about what patients and healthcare providers need. In some cases, we’ll need to think about how to deliver treatments in a matter of hours and create an innovative supply chain for each individual across the globe. That’s a tall order, and it will require scientists and engineers who are ready to invent and perfect processes we haven’t even dreamed of yet. I can’t wait to help and witness those talented people do their best work.

Learn more about our approach to personalised healthcare

Tags: People, Innovation, We are Roche