Outfoxing clever vaccine targets
Company: Pfizer ($PFE)
Title: Senior Vice President of Vaccine Research and Early Development
Kathrin Jansen got her Ph.D. in Germany, and upon completion was advised for the first of many times in her life to step outside her comfort zone. So she traveled to Ithaca, NY, for her postdoctorate work at Cornell, a foreign place demanding that she learn foreign concepts in a foreign language.
"Plans don't always work out," she told FierceBiotech. "Being in science, one should know this."
In that same vein, early in her education, Jansen set her sights on developing drugs but instead became involved in tackling some of the vaccine industry's toughest targets at Merck ($MRK), then at Wyeth, and now at Pfizer as senior vice president of vaccine research and early development. Through all of this, what Jansen learned is that while one needs to make plans, a successful scientist and businesswoman will have the nimbleness and flexibility to change direction rapidly, listen to good advice and ultimately to trust one's gut.
Vaccine development is a tricky area of the pharma business, partly because vaccines are intended for currently healthy people. This means challenges in awareness, education and message. Jansen has been fortunate--and, of course, talented--to be involved in the development of two very successful vaccines: Gardasil, used to prevent certain types of HPV, and Prevnar 13, given to young children to protect them against pneumococcal bacteria.
Researchers dream of seeing a program from start to finish, Jansen said. And she got to be a part of that with the creation of Gardasil. Now it's licensed, used--though "should be used much more"--and backed by governments and industry alike, she said.
Creating Prevnar 13 was very difficult, Jansen said. It's "the most complex vaccine that ever has been made," and several scientific challenges needed to be addressed, such as how to measure vaccine responses. Working with a team to deliver it to the world was a wonderful experience, she said.
"I'm always saying: I think I'm addicted," Jansen said. "Having seen what vaccines can do, you want to have more of it." The successful development of a vaccine like Prevnar 13 can remind scientists, even in "the trenches of research," of the enormity of what is being prevented, she said. Studies show it has the power to reduce hospital visits and save lives worldwide.
Currently, one of several projects Jansen is working on at Pfizer is developing a vaccine to prevent MRSA. "It's going very well," she said, but it's a very "clever" bacterium. And whenever you deal with a very complex organism that does a lot of things, you have to outfox your foe, she said. To date, there have been only failures in the quest to make this vaccine, which Jansen attributes in part to scientists underestimating the pathogen. "We need to approach this pathogen from multiple angles"--this is the new frontier.
Upon looking at the first data, Jansen is fascinated. The team is seeing the responses they and the world at large so desire: immune responses that are able to kill the bacteria, which have never been seen before by anyone. It took a while, but now the team has seen what they need to see and is gearing up for the next phases of development. "We have given it the very best shot that we can give it," she said. Now, only time will tell.
Like many of the women we've spoken to for this year's feature, Jansen hasn't had many female role models. Science is still largely a man's world, and, throughout her career, Jansen has sought input from anyone with valuable insight, regardless of gender. "I always believe that one should seek advice where you believe the experience is," she said.
One of the lessons Jansen learned that has most affected her is when it is time to give up. In drug development, so much is invested in R&D--time, money, sweat.
"I tell people: It's hard; it's not easy," she said. "You have to work at it. And what you learn is that you can do it."
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-- Jennifer Levin (email | Twitter)