Interview

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

5 questions with Genentech’s Wayne Fairbrother
Laurel Oldach
November 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.

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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.)

 

Laurel Oldach

Laurel Oldach is a science writer for the ASBMB.

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