October 2010

A Career in Biomarker Discovery

Controlling My Destiny

As I finished up my doctoral research, I decided to make my first heretical move and do a postdoctoral fellowship in industry. I accepted a position in proteomics at what was then Pharmacia and Upjohn in Kalamazoo, Mich. After two years, it was time to get a real job. I started interviewing with contacts I’d made at conferences and searching for jobs through traditional means.

"In the future, I hope no one has to watch his or her parents go to the doctor with vague symptoms for months without getting an accurate diagnosis."

Then, my husband and I had a revolutionary thought— we wanted to be in control of our destiny and decide where to live rather than just letting the advertised job openings dictate our path. We chose Colorado. It’s not exactly a booming biotechnology community like the San Francisco Bay Area or Boston, but it’s not too shabby either.

Now, it was time for heretical act number two. I started cold-calling every biotech company in Colorado. I discovered that most people are quite willing to talk about what they are trying to do at their company, especially when they are passionate about it. After I described my research experience at Pharmacia, several people suggested I contact Larry Gold and talk to him about his newest company, SomaLogic. Larry was gracious and accepted my call. We decided I would host him to talk about the SomaLogic technology at Pharmacia, and he would arrange for me to interview at SomaLogic. The agreement worked well, and, within a few months, we moved to Colorado. I started out at SomaLogic knowing shamefully little about aptamers. Now, nearly 10 years later, I direct the company’s aptamer discovery group.

A Perfect Fit

I really could not have asked for a more perfect fit for what I wanted to do with my life. SomaLogic’s mission is to find protein signatures associated with disease. These protein signatures can be a hallmark of disease before symptoms are even evident. Signatures also can be used to identify patients who will or won’t respond to a particular therapy. The proteins are measured using a novel class of aptamers called SOMAmers (slow off-rate modified aptamers). We now have developed SOMAmers that recognize 1,000 human proteins, and we use them to measure protein levels out of a single 15-μL biological sample in a high-throughput manner. We can measure many hundreds of proteins in many hundreds of samples to do biomarker discovery for diagnostics and assist throughout the drug development process.

In the future, I hope no one has to watch his or her parents go to the doctor with vague symptoms for months without getting an accurate diagnosis. Instead, patients should be able to take a simple blood test that helps doctors know when follow-up testing is warranted long before there are rampant metastases.

I’m really glad I didn’t let “requirements” keep me from applying to positions that drew my interest. I love what my company is doing, and I think our approach is the best way to make it really work. I never would have had the opportunity to be a part of what I believe will be a major tool for personalized medicine in the future if I had limited myself to what made “sense.” If you’re smart, have good critical judgment and feel strongly about where you want to make a difference, nothing should stop you.

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