The Unexpected Career Opportunities in Life Sciences - Marc Cummings, President & CEO of Life Science Washington and Dr. Tina Albertson, Chief Medical Officer at Lyell Immunopharma


“There's a real diversity of jobs available that folks don’t always think about initially when they think about going into healthcare,” says Marc Cummings, the President and CEO of Life Science Washington, a nonprofit trade association serving the life sciences industry in the state of Washington. Dr. Tina Albertson, the Chief Medical Officer at nearby Lyell Immunopharma, agrees. For instance at her company, which does R&D on cell therapies for solid tumor cancers, there’s a need for specialists in logistics who organize and monitor the movement of patient cells that need to be flown to other locations to be genetically engineered and returned to the bedside for use in treatment. As these industry veterans share with host Michael Carrese, the Seattle region is a well-established hub in the growing biotech sector due to a unique blend of strengths including longstanding non-profit research institutions and powerhouse tech companies such as Microsoft and Amazon. “This region is really well-prepared for innovation from a basic science standpoint and also from the tech side of our community,” says Albertson. Check out this revealing discussion of the challenges and opportunities in life sciences, the critical role AI and machine learning is now playing, and what they wish more people understood about clinical trials and drug development. Mentioned in this episode: https://lyell.com/ https://lifesciencewa.org/




Michael Carrese: Hi, everybody. I'm Michael Carrese, and today on Raise the Line we're going to focus our attention on the fascinating intersection of innovation in life sciences and oncology. As our guides, I'm delighted to welcome two guests: Marc Cummings is President and CEO of Life Science Washington, a nonprofit trade association serving the life sciences industry in the state of Washington; and also with us is Dr. Tina Albertson, the Chief Medical Officer and Head of Development at Lyell Immunopharma, a biotech company focused on delivering better therapeutic options for patients with solid tumors. And thanks to you both very much for being with us today.


Marc Cummings: Thank you.


Dr. Tina Albertson: Thank you.


Michael Carrese: So, we always start on the show getting some professional background from guests. We have an audience of med students and early career professionals that are always curious to find out how people end up where they do. So Marc, why don't we start with you. What first got you interested in the tech space and then life sciences?


Marc Cummings: I spent my whole life sort of in technology, not necessarily just life sciences. I spent the first half of my career in Washington, DC, working in software and then also in clean tech industries. I then spent the last half of my career here in Washington State advocating on behalf of the industry and focused specifically on life sciences, but I’ve always been at that sort of that nexus between innovation, policy and industry.


Michael Carrese: And what about you, Dr. Albertson? What drew you to medicine and particularly pediatric oncology?


Dr. Tina Albertson: Yes, thank you. I started my academic career in molecular biology and really got interested in what goes wrong in a cell to become a cancer cell. My first interest in cancer came through the biology route and as I went through my undergraduate education, I decided medicine would be a good fit for me and went on to medical school. As I explored the different medical fields, oncology continued to be of interest for me, both from the scientific standpoint, but in particular, for pediatric oncology, you know, the personal side of it...the family unit that you got to interact with and help support. 


As I went through my career and training, I ended up back in Washington at the Fred Hutchison Cancer Center, where both the science side of it and the medicine side of it were front and center, and I really learned that I enjoyed both aspects of that. Actually, after my training in clinical oncology, I went back and got my Ph.D. in cancer biology as well. As I started my academic career and my clinical career, I realized that I could actually benefit more patients through industry and the development of drugs for large populations of patients, rather than the individual contribution of helping a patient in the clinic, one on one. So, for me, it was a great intersection between the science and the medicine where a whole team of people are working towards getting drugs tested and approved by the FDA so that hundreds and thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of patients can benefit from those trials and new drugs.


Michael Carrese: Yeah, that's a different dimension of impact, for sure. So, Marc, why don't you tell us a little bit about Washington's life science industry for those who might not be familiar with it. You have quite a reputation out there for that.


Marc Cummings: Yes. So, Washington state has a long history in life sciences, going back, really, to the 1970s. We've always had a real strong medical school at the University of Washington. In those early years a lot of the spinouts had been in the medical device space. We had leaders in ultrasound. 60 Minutes did a show and referred to Seattle as the "best place in America to have a heart attack," because we had just taken defibrillators and put them under ambulances for the first time, because they were portable, right? 


Fast forward thirty or forty years, and we've really become this biotech hub that for many years had a real strong background on the research side, but in the recent decade or so, we've really added the commercialization component of that -- new companies like Lyell and others that have grown dramatically and all of that is built on a really strong research base. I think one of the things that's unique about the ecosystem here is a real strong mix of nonprofit research institutes -- Fred Hutch Cancer Center, Gates Foundation, Allen Institute, Benaroya Research Institute and others -- that really provide this mix of both incredible research that has both global reach and also really the underpinning for the research that is gone into the companies here. 


I'm sure Tina will talk a little bit about that, particularly in the oncology space. One of the things that's interesting here is that we are this really advanced innovation cluster. We tend to go after really hard problems here, which is why you saw, for example, that the first FDA approved drug in the world for immunotherapy was developed here in Seattle in 2010, which served as much of the foundation again, for many things that Tina will talk about. So, with that, let me turn it over to Tina talk a little bit about the immunotherapy space.


Michael Carrese: Yes, and how Lyell Immunopharma fits into the picture that Marc just painted.


Dr. Tina Albertson: It really starts with our University of Washington and Fred Hutch institutions that really formed the base of both the science and medicine that underpin immunotherapy. As Marc mentioned, Provenge was one of the first cellular therapies on the market. But the Fred Hutch were pioneers in bone marrow transplant, which is really kind of the primary first cell therapy that went into patients and folks there have been working on genetically engineered and non-genetically engineered cell therapies for decades. A couple of companies have come out directly from the Fred Hutch, and not just in cell therapy, but in a lot of innovative cancer, and other industries as well. So, it really comes from an institution and a city that's really well prepared for innovation -- not just from a science standpoint and the basic science coming out of those institutions -- but also, and I think we'll talk about this later, the technology of Seattle and the tech side of our community as well. 


What first came out of the Hutch was Juno Therapeutics, which was then bought by Celgene and Bristol Myers Squibb, and they were one of the first three companies to make CAR T cells, which is a genetically engineered cell therapy for B cell malignancies -- things like leukemia and lymphoma -- but they couldn't get it to work in solid tumors. Solid tumors tend to have a few more immunosuppressive elements that make it so these therapeutics don't work as well. 


Lyell was founded to try to overcome some of those barriers in the solid tumor microenvironment that turn these immune cells off. We're committed to making cell therapy work, to make those cells resistant to what we call T-cell exhaustion and resistant to these mechanisms that shut down the immune system in solid tumor patients to try to get the same benefit for solid tumor patients that we've seen from immunotherapy and cell therapy in hematologic malignancies


Michael Carrese: And how's it going? 


Dr. Tina Albertson: You know, we're in the clinic. Our science is strong. As I mentioned, we have founders from the Hutch, but we also have founders from the NIH and from Stanford University. So, we have amazing science and we're putting it in the clinic. Ask me in a year or two and we'll be able to tell you, but you know, our mission is to make things better for these patients and we're all hoping we can do that.


Michael Carrese: So, you both mentioned the tech hub side of the Washington story. Marc, maybe you can get a little more specific for us about how that impacts the life sciences industry and pick up on some of what Tina was talking about.


Marc Cummings: Well, this has obviously been a trend that over the past four or five or eight years has been a big deal in terms of the convergence of biotech and traditional technology with big data.  Obviously, we’re the home of Microsoft and Amazon and literally hundreds of other tech companies that either spun off or are part of that ecosystem, so that really makes this state and this region a leader globally in terms of having that skill set when it comes to big data and cloud computing. 


It's kind of interesting, because we had this conversation five, six years ago, and everybody saw this coming. But when you say, "Okay, what are the projects happening," there were only a handful. Fast forward to today and we've got a wide range of companies that are either founded on, or their technology is driven by, either AI, machine learning or access to big cloud datasets and that kind of thing. They range the gamut from a blood testing company that uses AI-enhanced tools to give you a better outcome to a company like Adaptive Biotechnology that has effectively partnered with Microsoft to basically map the human immune system and then using that to develop both new therapeutics as well as diagnostics. 


So, it's really an exciting time here to have those two areas coming together. On the digital health side, we've certainly seen during the pandemic the rise of telehealth. There's a whole category of companies there as well that we see emerging that are taking advantage of that. I'll let Tina talk a bit more about how they're utilizing those tools in the therapy space.


Michael Carrese: Over to you, Tina.


Dr. Tina Albertson: Yes, you know, I think there are two aspects of the technology sector that have helped particularly cell therapy, but I think drug development in general, in Seattle. The first is big data, and Marc mentioned that computing power. It started with the large data sets for sequencing the genome, as you mentioned, but when you think about a cell and you're making genetically engineered cell product for every patient, you treat each product differently. Each product has hundreds of different characteristics that we track, and we try to figure out which aspects of those cells matter and don't matter. So, we have datasets that are enormous compared to a small molecule in a vial off the shelf, right?


What we have found is we need the power of this technology to just analyze our data and deconvolute what matters for cell therapy and immunotherapy for the patient. Additionally, cellular therapies are logistically complicated: you take the cells from the patient at the site of care; you send them on a plane and you have to do that within a very short period of time, so that you can start processing the cells, genetically engineer them, culture them, expand them, freeze them back down and send them back to the patient for when they're ready to be treated. 


All of that takes logistics power. We track flights, we track weather, we track things that can go wrong in getting the cells to and from a patient. Not only that, but as the cells are growing, we don't want that product to be ruined by an electrical shutdown or a malfunction of a machine. And so we use the power of technology to track and monitor, but also to help with the logistics. We have Amazon Web Services both for data and for their logistics expertise. How can we scale this kind of medical therapy where it's requiring different steps that aren't simply medical? So, we're partnering with those kinds of companies to make these things seamless. How can we make it easier for the patient and for the clinic to do these things?


Michael Carrese: We've done 350 shows and nobody has ever talked about that aspect of it. I mean, there's always more to it, once you start getting deeper into it and more opportunities, I think, for different sorts of jobs that people don't even know exist. Marc, turning to you, talk about the workforce piece of this. Two things: one, what are some of the newer positions, occupations, professions that are emerging from all of this that you're talking about? And secondly, I would think you guys have a really deep pool of people from which to draw because of all of the educational institutions and Microsoft and everything else you're talking about.


Marc Cummings: Yes, it's interesting times. I think what's interesting about life sciences is that the data and computing power certainly allows you to ground truth more questions and be able to kind of narrow that funnel, but at the end of the day, you still have to have science behind that. It can lead you to answers and insights but at the end of the day, you still need to understand what the mechanism is that's driving the change that you're looking for. So, it's bringing us together. 


We see that with many of our companies, where the number of data scientists on staff has grown dramatically. At some companies it may be as many as half the company, which you wouldn't think of.  I always say, a lot of folks think, "Oh, well, I can't work in the industry unless I'm an old gray-haired person with a lab coat." The reality is that the makeup of the companies has changed dramatically in the last few years, 


As the companies grow and evolve from research companies into manufacturing, you have skill sets that range from folks that are coming straight out of high school work in manufacturing operations, through folks working in entry-level science through folks that are PhDs and postdocs with degrees and backgrounds like Tina's. So, there's a real diversity of jobs available. I think the challenge here is that on the data science side, you need that core understanding and skill set, but you've got to be able to then apply that in a different environment than, let's say, gaming, or other software development. We always say we have yet to find anybody that wants to sign up for that first beta test of a heart transplant, right?


Michael Carrese: Right.


Marc Cummings: And so the mentality within the industry is a bit different. I's the same skill sets, but you know, applying them in an environment of much longer research cycles...a regulated environment where you just simply can't make mistakes with human lives. But also, at the same time, we see a lot of folks that have maybe grown up in traditional tech and they've been in a couple of companies, and they really love the idea of going and working in a company that really impacts patient lives as opposed to just developing code and games and that kind of thing. 


So, it depends on what your background is, but you need sort of a mix of skill sets. We're seeing more and more folks want to jump in, particularly on the digital health side. But competition is a factor because if you're an early-stage company, it's tough to pay the same amount as an Amazon or Microsoft for those in-demand software engineers. But most of the folks that make the switch really enjoy the challenge and the output of that work and the impact it has on patients.


Michael Carrese: One of our favorite parts of the show is getting advice from the guests. As a reminder, a lot of our audience are med students, other health profession students and early career professionals. So, let me ask each in turn, starting with you Dr. Albertson. What advice would you give to someone -- maybe an earlier version of yourself if that's an easier way to think about it -- in an educational program, looking to their career in life sciences and biotech and cancer innovation? What would you tell them?


Dr. Tina Albertson: I think for someone just starting out in medicine or science that's interested in helping patients -- particularly oncology, which is my obvious interest -- I think you need to be open-minded and curious about what's out there. When you start in your education, mostly what you're focusing on and what you're exposed to is academics. But that's not the only career path. We need practicing physicians, and we need basic scientists and those people who are involved in things like what I do. However, there are also people with PhDs and MDs that are on the business side of biotech. They're like me, where they are running clinical trials and managing groups of people who are getting drugs tested and approved with the FDA. Those each are different jobs that if you have the science background or the medical background, could be of interest. So, my main recommendation is to explore some of these different paths that may be better suited or just may be different for different times of your life. Clinical practice is great for some people, but it may not be a perfect fit for all. Academics is the same way. It takes a specific kind of person to love the academic world, and some people are better suited for a more industry-based career, and there's a lot out there if you look.


Michael Carrese: Well yeah, it is one of the nice things about being in the health professions is the incredible variety of places you can find yourself. Marc Cummings, how would you answer that question about advice to the younger version of yourself?


Marc Cummings: Yeah, well, I would echo what Tina said. I think the real key is sort of being curious in those early years. So many students go to college or university and they're probably in freshman biology thinking that they're pre-med, but only a fraction of folks end up going on to become a doctor, right? There are many alternate career paths that I think students aren't aware of that are open to them. So, that's one of the things is in those early years...reach out, talk to folks that are working in non-traditional roles. It's not just a nurse or a doctor, but someone that is working in the industry that is running a trial that is working in some of those fields. 


As Tina said, it's not just the academic and the research component -- there's certainly that which is available to everybody -- but there is the entire business side. Any good biotech company has to raise money, you've got regulatory affairs, you've got manufacturing operations. There's a real diversity of jobs that are available to folks. People don’t always think about the diversity of jobs that are available when they think about going into healthcare. We're doing a lot of that work with some of our colleges in the state here, trying to add a survey course so they get exposure to those different fields and then go do a summer internship or just get some lab experience. 


Michael Carrese: Great advice. Another favorite question of ours is whether there's a topic of particular interest to you -- could be what we've been talking about or could be something completely different -- where there's a real gap or a myth where you would say to Osmosis, "You guys should make a video about that." What would that be Dr. Albertson?


Dr. Tina Albertson: I think there's a huge educational gap in the understanding of what a clinical trial is, both from what it takes to get a drug from the very first patient ever treated to approval, but also what it means for a patient. What does it actually entail? What kind of benefit can the patient and the field have in the data and learnings from that patient and from that trial? Like, why are clinical trials important? You know, one of the reasons I went into pediatric oncology is almost every child with cancer goes on a clinical trial and the advances that came from that rigor is amazing. Over 90% of kids are cured of cancer, and that's not true with adults. Adults don't go on trials and part of it is fear...they don't understand what they're signing up for and what the value is to the world, to the medical community by offering up their ability to participate in a trial. So, that's what I would recommend.


Michael Carrese: That's a great topic. What about you, Marc?


Marc Cummings: I think for me -- and this may be because I've spent a lot of my time in the public policy space -- is just helping educate people on the time and cost and effort that it takes to bring a new therapy to a place where it actually can have an impact on patients. We always hear folks say they want to lower costs and they want access to treatments at a twenty-five dollar copay. You can't get a cancer therapy for a twenty-five dollar copay at the corner drugstore, right? I mean, particularly in this market here where companies like Tina’s are working on some of the absolutely most advanced therapeutics in the world.  Those usually take five to ten years of work in the academic environment before you spend another two to five years on a partnering path, to then moving into the clinic, and moving through trials. In many cases that's a ten or fifteen-year journey in the case when you've got really great science and it's been proven to begin with. So, when I talk to folks there's this knee jerk reaction of wanting things to be cheaper, and the reality is once you walk people through what that process looks like...it's not like tech where you get a few folks in a garage, write some code and you've got a product out in eighteen months or twenty-four months.


Michael Carrese: Or twenty-four hours, if it's an app,


Marc Cummings: Twenty-four hours, right?  We've got folks that spend ten years on the research side before you even move it into product development. 


Michael Carrese: Right, right. That's a great perspective and I really appreciate you sharing all this wisdom with us. We've been talking to Mark Cummings, President and CEO of Life Science Washington and Dr. Tina Albertson, Chief Medical Officer and Head of Development at Lyell Immunopharma. Thank you both so much for being with us today. It's been a pleasure.


Dr. Tina Albertson: Thank you.


Marc Cummings: Thank you, appreciate it.


Michael Carrese: I'm Michael Carrese and we want to thank you for checking out today's show. Remember to do your part to raise the line and strengthen the healthcare system. We're all in this together.