Interview

“You’ve got … to get outside of your comfort zone”

5 questions with Genentech’s Wayne Fairbrother
Laurel Oldach
Nov. 20, 2020

Wayne Fairbrother leads a department at Genentech tasked with validating disease-associated targets and determining whether they are feasible for drug development. The biophysicist, who was raised in New Zealand and has lived in California for decades, sat down virtually with ASBMB Today to talk about his career. The interview has been edited.

Fairbrother-Wayne-445x443.jpg

Name: Wayne Fairbrother

Current position: Director and senior staff scientist, Early Discovery Biochemistry, Genentech

Career path:

  • D.Phil., Oxford University, 1989
  • Postdoc: Scripps Research Institute
  • First job outside academia: Scientist, Genentech

Favorite molecule or protein: Bcl-2

How did you come to work at Genentech?

It's an interesting story. Genentech was looking to set up a protein nuclear magnetic resonance group back in the early 1990s. I applied for the position and, as many people do, got a polite "thank you, but no thank you" letter. Two or three months later I got a call from the director of protein engineering, who had gotten my name from one of their consultants, a senior person in protein NMR who I knew — and I got the job.

I like to tell that story to people looking for positions. You can get lost in the bureaucracy, especially nowadays when everything is computer searched, so having a network definitely helps.

Any other advice you often give?

I tell people going into industry the one thing I can guarantee is that in five years they'll be working on something completely different. Things progress and come in and out of favor for various reasons, whether it's science, strategic decisions or competition. So you need to be flexible.

That, and collaboration. You can't do anything without working with colleagues who have different expertise to put the pieces together and solve a problem. You've got to be prepared to get outside of your comfort zone.

How has Genentech changed in your time there?

The company has gotten bigger. In the early days we'd interact with everyone; now we're spread over a larger campus, and it's harder to know what's going on everywhere at all times. You need to be more proactive in keeping your finger on the pulse. Also, the pendulum has swung a little from basic discovery to more translational research. Of course, we're all about making therapeutics for unmet medical needs, so translation is critical.

Is there a project you're especially proud to have worked on?

There's a clear winner there: a collaboration with Abbot Labs (now AbbVie) and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Australia that resulted in a treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia and acute myeloid leukemia. It's a molecule that specifically targets Bcl-2, which for a long time was considered undruggable. It was an exciting project — and it's always fun to meet patients who have benefited from something that you've touched. It reminds you why we do what we do.

Is there such a thing as an undruggable target?

I don't think there is. It may be true to say it's not druggable with the technology now, but technology is evolving. When a target is considered undruggable, it just means that we haven't discovered the way to drug it yet. That's the way I like to think.

(Would you like to suggest an ASBMB member who works in industry for a Five Questions interview? Send an email to ASBMB Today.)

 

Enjoy reading ASBMB Today?

Become a member to receive the print edition monthly and the digital edition weekly.

Learn more
Laurel Oldach

Laurel Oldach is a former science writer for the ASBMB.

Featured jobs

from the ASBMB career center

Get the latest from ASBMB Today

Enter your email address, and we’ll send you a weekly email with recent articles, interviews and more.

Latest in Industry

Industry highlights or most popular articles

Funding opportunities to explore
Funding

Funding opportunities to explore

Nov. 28, 2023

Beyond the National Institutes of Health, a number of U.S. government agencies provided funding for basic scientific research.

Combining project management and people management in industry
Jobs

Combining project management and people management in industry

Sept. 1, 2023

Our industry careers columnist talked to Isha Dey, a cell biologist at Thermo Fisher Scientific, about her role as a scientist in industry.

Exploring careers in microscopy
Jobs

Exploring careers in microscopy

Aug. 22, 2023

During a mini-internships, Laura McCormick learned about working at a core facility and for a manufacturer.

Industry predoc offers space to ponder the next step
Essay

Industry predoc offers space to ponder the next step

Aug. 18, 2023

“I knew I needed time to decompress after my busy college life and before starting an even more demanding schedule in grad school," Anna Crysler writes.

Demystifying the gap
Essay

Demystifying the gap

Aug. 9, 2023

“The two sectors do not always connect or understand each other, resulting in fewer opportunities and resources for aspiring professionals,” Tian Yu writes.

Discover BMB 2024 abstract categories
Annual Meeting

Discover BMB 2024 abstract categories

Aug. 8, 2023

It's time to start thinking about the work you'd like to present at the ASBMB annual meeting in March in San Antonio.