Advice from a scientist turned physician turned robot builder -- be curious

Why science is a team sport and failure isn’t all bad, says AbbVie’s new Chief Scientific Officer.

Published October 17, 2019 / All Stories

The origin story of AbbVie’s top scientist

At AbbVie, there is only one Dr. Tom Hudson – the new Senior Vice President of R&D and Chief Scientific Officer.

However, in 1996 at the McGill University Health Centre there were four Dr. Hudsons – there was Tom (new faculty member), and three of his sisters who were medical residents in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Public Health. All at the same time, at the same hospital.

“They would page Dr. Hudson and more than one would show up,” says Tom Hudson, who has six sisters, including a twin sister, who were all drawn to science professions predominantly in the health care sector. “There wasn’t any pressure to be in this field. My dad was a scientist and we were encouraged to be curious and do something that matters.”

Dr. Hudson is still curious. An internationally renowned Canadian genome scientist, he was a pioneer in mapping the human genome. Before that he was a physician who specialized in immune-related diseases who was then drawn to genome research and the genetic drivers that cause human diseases, including cancer. And even before that, he was “Patricia’s twin” or “Marie’s brother” who, as a kid, wanted to be an astronaut but who also happened to be pretty good at racking up science fair awards.

Dr. Hudson brings all these experiences with him every day when walks through his office door at AbbVie. We caught up with him to find out how these past experiences influence his role leading AbbVie’s R&D organization. How does he harness the brain power of almost 9,000 talented scientists located all over the world to try and find new and better treatments for patients?

Well, for one thing, he knew you were going to ask that question.

Tom Hudson starts meetings prepared and ready to listen.

You can thank his sisters for that.

Tom Hudson has six sisters, including a twin sister, who were all drawn to science careers. “There wasn’t any pressure to be in this field,” Tom says. “My dad was a scientist and we were encouraged to be curious and do something that matters.”

You and your six sisters all ended up in science or healthcare. Did your parents encourage careers in science related fields?

Not really, we were just as into music as we were science. I played the violin, double bass and French horn. Growing up we spoke both English and French and even today when we all get together, we’ll start a story in English and finish in French. I have five kids, ages 15 to 30 years, and I’d be happy with whatever career choice they decide.
 

Prior to joining AbbVie, you were a physician and a researcher. How do these roles impact your role today as Chief Scientific Officer?

Even when I was a physician, I was a researcher. I would receive calls and consults from other physicians about “mystery cases” – the difficult cases that no one could figure out. Science and disease and the way our bodies work, it’s all very complicated and many times, there is not a clear answer or diagnosis. I like getting to the bottom of it and finding answers. When I led the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, I worked closely with clinicians but very much wanted to be a part of the next step of getting new treatments to patients.
 

Is that what led you to AbbVie?

When I joined AbbVie in 2016, I oversaw oncology discovery and early development, working with teams looking at specific genetic mutations and other molecular abnormalities in an individual’s tumor to identify, target and develop treatments for many types of cancers. I wanted to be part of the entire process, beyond the discovery stage to see a Phase 1 asset become an actual therapy. When I was a doctor, I helped individual patients and in research, groups of patients. At AbbVie, we are working to help thousands, maybe millions of patients by changing the way a disease is treated. For me, there is no more challenging or rewarding job. To figure out the answers to the big questions is how we help patients.

Tom Hudson supervised a team that built the ‘Genomatron’ which performed 300,000 polymerase chain reactions daily and sent the human genome mapping project into high gear.

Who is your scientific hero?

One that stands out is Eric Lander, a mathematician and geneticist and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Eric taught me to think big. I joined his lab as a postdoc where I supervised a team of engineers, biologists and computer scientists who built one of the first high-throughput robots for replicating short segments of DNA. The ‘Genomatron’ which performed 300,000 polymerase chain reactions daily, sent the human genome mapping project into high gear.
 

In the early 1990s, setting out to map the first human genome must have seemed like a daunting task.

I was the project leader for the physical map of the human genome and later developed several approaches and technologies used to identify genes implicated in human diseases. When we first set out to sequence 3 billion human DNA nucleotides that make up the human genome, we didn’t know how to get there. We had to figure out how to put the pieces together. For all the successful robots that worked, there were a lot of robots that didn’t. And yet, this groundbreaking research led to the discovery of more than 2,000 genetic tests for human conditions.
 

It sounds like you see scientists as part detective, part explorer and part rule breaker?

The biggest breakthroughs happen when a scientist or group of scientists try something that had never been done before. There are clues that tell us what makes a good target and often it’s genetics that are pointing us in the right direction. At AbbVie, we have the latest technologies, platforms and leaders leading the way. For example, we have the Genomic Research Center, where teams are working to translate the genetic information into more personalized treatments. In our Development Design Lab we use millions of external and internal data sources to select the highest performing sites for studies, shortening our timelines.

Science is very much a team sport and that’s motivating. Maybe we rethink how we look at failure. When conducting clinical trials, what we are trying to do is prove that a certain regimen is better for patients when compared to another – is A better than B? However, what is sometimes more important to understand is the why – why is A better than B? We collect a lot of specimens from patients throughout a clinical trial, which allows us to better understand a drug’s activity during the trial. And very often, that is the type of information that tells us that the study is not working. We have implemented a lot of translation science and biomarkers into our work and if we do not see the validation of the mechanism, we are able to have the insights to stop the trial and dig deeper into why something did not work. This allows us to more efficiently use our time and resources. I believe if you can learn something from a failure, it’s not a loss.

Outside of the office, Tom spends lots of time with his wife and five kids. “There is a lot of life going on,” Tom says. “I’m not going to miss it.”

Whether it’s personalized medicine, genomic research, gene therapy, or artificial intelligence, there are a lot of hot topics in R&D today. What area do you think holds the most potential for patients?

I learned that no single approach or technology will be transformative by itself. When new therapies are shown to have an impact, there usually has been a convergence of insights, technologies, disciplines and hard work that came together to bring meaningful results to patients. The most important ingredients common to successful outcomes in biomedical research are deep commitment of individuals and strong teamwork.
 

What is your life like outside the office?

I’m an avid sci-fi reader. I have read the Lord of Rings books more times than I can count and over time, have enjoyed discovering new authors. I spend lots of time with my family and enjoy long bike rides and seeing what is out there. I’ll bring my phone on these rides but only to take photos.

There is a lot of life going on. I’m not going to miss it.

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