August 2010

Member Spotlight

For our industry issue, ASBMB Today asked three of its members who work in industry— Weiping JiangMatthew Olson and Anthony S. Serianni— to answer questions about themselves and their research


Spotlight---JiangWeiping Jiang 

Director, R&D Systems 

How long have you been an ASBMB member?
I’ve been a member since 1992.

What do you study?
I study enzymes for the development of products, including proteins, antibodies and assay kits.

Why did you go into industry?
To generate new research tools to advance our understanding of health and disease.

How do you feel ASBMB could best help scientists in industry?
The society could foster more interactions among the scientists in industry as well as between scientists from both industry and academia.

Where do you see research in industry going in five to 10 years?
I think there will be a focus on increased sensitivity and specificity of detection tools.

Has the downturn in the economy affected your job or your company?

Do you think your academic training prepared you for working in industry?

How do you think research in academia differs most from research in industry?
Research in academia is hypothesis-driven. Research in industry is utility-driven.

Next profile >> Matthew Olson 

Spotlight---OlsonMatthew Olson 

Principle Research Scientist, Johnson and Johnson 

How long have you been an ASBMB member?
I’ve been a member since 2002.

What do you study?
I’m part of a team engaged in the development of cell-free and cell-based assays, which take advantage of label-free detection technology to monitor the enzymatic and biophysical properties of enzymes and proteins with their appropriate substrates and ligands. My role is to provide complete kinetic characterization of enzymes and evaluate signal transduction systems using substrates/effectors that are as “in vivo-like” as possible. Then, I determine the ability of small molecule antagonists and agonists to modulate these macromolecular systems.

Why did you go into industry?
I received a job offer from Wyeth Pharmaceuticals during my second postdoctoral fellowship. My wife and I considered other options at the time, but we made the decision to go to Pearl River, N.Y., where I joined the infectious disease department.

How do you feel ASBMB could best help scientists in industry?
Partnership and synergy.

There is a need for industry and academics to partner. Industry needs academic innovation. Academia needs industry to develop that innovation for drug discovery. Combined, they will create jobs for young scientists to carry the baton passed to them in both fields. ASBMB already is playing a major role in bridge building between academics and industry by using their current platforms: LIPIDMAPS, PSI, the ASBMB journals and the Experimental Biology meeting as a whole.

Where do you see research in industry going in five to 10 years?
Personalized medicine has been given much fanfare in recent years. This very well may be the future because there is a need for drug development taking genetic differences into account. Other areas gaining popularity in the coming years may be epigenetics and stem cells. These technologies are being evaluated for intervention of cancer and metabolic diseases. Another topic which may make resurgence is anti-infective drug discovery.

Has the downturn in the economy affected your job or your company?
The easy answer is, “What industry has not been affected?” All industries have been under pressure to increase efficacy. I think the more relevant issues affecting my job and the pharmaceutical industry as a whole are monitoring patent expirations, halting patent infringement and producing a robust pipeline. Although patent expirations are a given, rule updating could help. On the other hand, patent infringement is an undesirable reality with unpredictable consequences resulting in significant revenue losses translated into the research and development of an organization. R&D assets protected by patents are linked closely to current corporate profits. Often, unknown to the general public, is the fact that my industry reinvests up to 40 percent of its profits into R&D for a robust pipeline. Therefore, any unpredicted loss in revenue due to infringement undoubtedly will translate into budget reorganization and affect the future pipeline. Without a pipeline, we can’t exist.

Do you think your academic training prepared you for working in industry?
Yes. I was well trained by my thesis advisor and now mentor, Laurie Kaguni. Further academic training involved postdoctoral fellowships with Charles McHenry and Rafael Fridman. With Rafi, I also was privileged to work with Shahriar Mobashery. Because of their partnership in basic science pursuits, I learned the value and importance of being part of a team: “To go fast, you go alone. To go far, you go together.”

(Olson Continued)

Success in my journey, academics and industry, did not come merely from being under someone’s tutelage. First, I sought out mentors. Regardless of their awareness, I found people I wanted to emulate. Because coping with failure is never easy, it was from these very people that I gathered insights regarding my failures, thus leading to downstream success. Second, I adopted the mindset of “Yes, I will.” It is my opinion that passion cannot be taught. But, it can be caught. Third, I learned how to have vision and be provisional with help from my mentors. They taught me the importance of seeing beyond the here and now and then figuring out how to get there.

How do you think research in academia differs most from research in industry?
Differences between academics and industry: the number of projects, timelines, obligations, goals and objectives.

The sheer volume of failures involved in taking a drug to clinic requires multiple projects to run in parallel. Otherwise, to run in series is too great a time expense.

Likewise, timelines in industry are short. In many pharma and biotech operations, projects must show at least the promise of progressing to clinic within 18 months of project initiation. This means target validation, complete assay development, HTS campaign, initial HIT evaluation, valid cell-based assays and animal models in place and the initiation of lead development.

Many think of the above points as the “industrialized mindset” of drug discovery and science. In certain respects, this is correct. However, industry must, and does, have the infrastructure to support such campaigns. The business of drug discovery is, by its very nature, high-risk and high-reward. Regardless, we have obligations to our shareholders. They expect a return on their investment and we are obligated to deliver. In academics, many researchers focus on a particular topic or topic set for years, decades or an entire career. This is a timeline that is not affordable in industry. This does not mean that these career-long endeavors do not have value. They do. They’re just different. I hold many academic scientists in high regard because they take the time to dissect the important nuances of a particular enzyme, cell pathway, signal transduction mechanism or set of enzymes. Their work is foundational. Industry needs academics to lead in this way.
In industry, our goals and objectives necessitate tracking multiple targets, as our success is not based solely upon the pursuit of evaluating the target itself, but finding the appropriate modulator of that target. The biggest hurdle in drug discovery is not determining the enzyme’s mechanism or the mechanism for describing the modulator of that enzyme. It is avoiding toxicity – off-target effects. To take a new molecular entity to the FDA, you must show the small or large therapeutic molecule is specific, nontoxic and cleared by the body and that the compound’s metabolites are not toxic and have minimal side effects. 

Next profile >> Anthony S. Serianni 




Anthony S. Serianni 

Professor, University of Notre Dame
President and CEO, Omicron Biochemicals Inc. 

How long have you been an ASBMB member?
For more than 15 years.

What do you study?
I am a structural glycobiologist. I am interested in developing new NMR-based tools to investigate the structures of simple and complex carbohydrates in solution. We aim to apply these new tools to improve our understanding of the chemical and biochemical properties of saccharides.

Why did you go into industry?
I co-founded Omicron Biochemicals Inc. in 1982, a few months before I accepted a faculty position at the University of Notre Dame. The company was started because, during my graduate studies at Michigan State University, we had developed new chemical methods to introduce stable isotopes site-specifically into saccharides that allowed access to a much greater array of labeled sugars than was accessible previously. This improved capability led to a number of requests for labeled compounds from the research community. As I was intent on pursuing an academic research career, I solved the problem by starting a small company during my postdoctoral stay at Cornell University to satisfy the needs of the research community, thinking at the time that this company would last perhaps three to five years. The company still is in operation 28 years later.

How do you feel ASBMB could best help scientists in industry?
By supporting basic discovery in the life sciences through which new applied technologies will be born. ASBMB should be a home for, and an advocate of, the discovery of core scientific knowledge. It should embrace fundamental inquiry as the agent that spurs new practical solutions. Industrial scientists need access to new, radical ideas and findings on a continuing basis to develop new ways to solve contemporary problems. Industrial scientists frequently do not have the time or money to pursue basic research – they largely are product-driven and thus depend on the academic community in great measure to supply the fundamental knowledge from which practical solutions can be developed.

Where do you see research in industry going in five to 10 years?
I know better than to predict the future. But, we are experiencing a time of significant change in both academic and industrial research. There is not enough space here to explain why this is occurring, but one factor is that the public is becoming more aware of the fact that, after more than 60 years of relatively generous federal research funding in the U.S., there still are major deficiencies in our ability to solve old and persistent problems, especially in the health-related areas. This partly may explain the shift in academic scientific research to solving practical, real-world problems. It is hard to say how long this trend will continue. In due course, however, a proper balance between basic and applied research needs to be struck, otherwise the discovery of fundamental, disruptive technologies that change the course of research, and our world, could be compromised. We need liberal minds thinking about lofty problems and people solving current problems with current technologies. Applied science without its basic research partner to support, stimulate and nourish it, is a formula for mediocrity and stagnation in the long term.

Has the downturn in the economy affected your job or your company?
As my main job is as a professor at the University of Notre Dame, the downturn has had a minimal impact, apart from perhaps reducing my pay raises in recent years! Federal research funding for academic research also has become more challenging in recent years. At Omicron, we largely have been immune to past economic downturns, which largely were limited to the U.S. This is because our clients are worldwide, and we are not dependent on U.S. clients for a large percentage of our sales. In the recent downturn, however, being global in nature, the situation may be different, especially if the downturn persists. Over the past 12-18 months, the effect has been small. What happens over the coming 12-18 months will depend on how well the global economy recovers, and how well governments, foundations and the private sector are willing or able to invest in chemical and biological research. 

Do you think your academic training prepared you for working in industry?
Only partly so. I was trained to think about scientific research in a very personal way. That is, fundamental research was paramount. As long as the work had a strong focus, addressed core questions, had realistic long-term objectives and was rigorous, then it did not matter whether it had an immediate application. In fact, this research philosophy led to the core discoveries that gave rise to Omicron. We were not looking to start a company; instead, as a result of basic, curiosity-driven study, we uncovered procedures that represented, at that time, disruptive technology with regard to saccharide labeling. In the business world, however, serving the needs of the client is paramount, thus fundamental research must be balanced with solving practical problems. Making money is the end-game in business, if your aim is to sustain a business over the long term. I had to learn this lesson and abide by these rules when operating Omicron.

How do you think research in academia differs most from research in industry?
The answer to this question depends on the historical time frame, and on the specific environments in academia and industry under scrutiny. I perceive academic research, perhaps naively so, as a venue for pursuing new and risky ideas, a place where researchers are not fettered by the need to generate a saleable product in the short term for public consumption and revenue generation, as is the case in most industrial settings. It is a privilege to be able to work in such a manner, that is, to be sustained largely by taxpayers and/or private citizens to study problems of no immediate or obvious commercial worth. Such scientists assume a great deal of personal and social responsibility to make good on the funds given to support them and not to waste the money or the opportunity.

Nowadays basic, curiosity-driven scientific research is yielding ground in academic environments to engineering solutions to world problems. This shift is healthy, in that too much basic research can lead to research becoming an end in itself rather than a means to improving the world in which we live. However, it is important to appreciate that some scientists are better at conducting basic research and others are better at pursuing applied research, and I am not convinced that you can force one to become the other. It is important that both research niches be encouraged and supported financially, because both need each other to produce a robust and productive research enterprise.

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