September 21, 2020 / All Stories

Female leaders fighting cancer

Senior female researchers at AbbVie describe their quest to find better treatments for cancer … and why they see diversity as a strength in science.

Senior AbbVie researchers Anahita Bhathena, Danelle James and Katherine Bell-McGuinn say diversity helps spark creative thinking in science.

Why diversity always matters

At AbbVie, we bring together staff and scientists from all different walks of life to ignite innovation and spark creative ideas in our laboratories. Our diverse workplace is why 47% of our management positions are held by women and DiversityInc named us one of America’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity.

In this article, three female senior researchers at AbbVie reflect on their paths into science, passion for discovery and hopes for the future of cancer research.

Katherine Bell-McGuinn, M.D., Ph.D.

group medical director, tumor dependency, AbbVie

Katherine Bell-McGuinn remembers her kindergarten teacher’s response when she said, “I want to be a doctor.”

“No, dear, you must mean a nurse,” the teacher replied.

It was the 1970s, and many Americans still didn’t always envision a multitude of career paths for women, especially in science. But Bell-McGuinn didn’t let that hold her back.

After earning M.D. and Ph.D. degrees at Johns Hopkins, she moved on to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and led more than 20 clinical trials in gynecological cancers.

Her work underscored how rewarding it can be to find, as she says, “the right combination of drugs that go after the right combination of mechanisms that went awry to cause cancer in the first place.”

“Whenever I first met a patient, curing their cancer was my focus,” she says. “With ovarian and cervical cancer, 80% of patients with optimal frontline therapy go into remission. So that’s always my goal. I wanted to get every patient to that point.”

In her research, Bell-McGuinn has played a key role in the development of PARP inhibitors – chemicals that block an enzyme called poly ADP ribose polymerase (PARP). This enzyme helps cells repair their DNA, and some cancer cells “need” it more than healthy body cells do.

PARP inhibitors cut off the “tonic”, so to speak, causing cancer cells to die.

At AbbVie, Bell-McGuinn leads researchers who are studying tumor dependency and how interfering with certain molecular pathways can cause the death of cancer cells.

“It’s amazing work,” she says. “And it can be bigger than cell death. How do we restore healthy cell pathways, delay the progression and growth of a tumor and completely eliminate it? It’s a fascinating area.”

Bell-McGuinn advises young female scientists to look for mentors.

“One of the draws to coming to AbbVie was Peg Foley, the vice president and head of solid tumor research, who continues to be a mentor for me and help me find the right balance of being strong and effective as a woman,” Bell-McGuinn says.

“Especially as a woman, we tend to think if we just do good work, people are going to notice,” she says. “I encourage people to find connections and ask them about what they’re doing at the company. Some could turn out to be lifelong friends, mentors, sponsors, and help you get to where you really want to go.”

Anahita Bhathena, Ph.D.

head of precision medicine, oncology, AbbVie

When she was performing research at a children’s hospital in Kansas City, Anahita Bhathena saw in closer detail how important it is to tailor treatment regimens to each child’s condition.

“As children grow, they undergo certain changes that affect how they metabolize drugs,” she says. So young children, for example, might not respond to a particular drug as well as older ones do, or vice-versa.

Then there are genetics. That’s where the subject gets complicated.

“We were also studying genetic profiles of the children, and the functionality of each child’s immune system,” she says. “And we examined tumor genetics. Each tumor is different, and even the cells within a tumor can vary.

“All of these factors influence how the patient will respond to drug treatments.”

The bottom line – every case of cancer is unique, like its own jigsaw puzzle. But that’s a puzzle Bhathena is eager to tackle.

“It’s interesting to see how patients respond so differently to drugs, and understand the molecular basis for that,” she says. “Ultimately, it helps us develop better therapies for each patient.”

At AbbVie, Bhathena’s team has focused on identifying molecular pathways that help determine how different types of tumors respond to various treatments. A recent example is multiple myeloma, a type of cancer that forms in plasma cells (white blood cells that fight infection). In multiple myeloma, plasma cells grow out of control within the bone marrow.

Of the 32,270 new cases of multiple myeloma expected this year in the U.S.,1 it’s thought that about 20 percent will have a form of the disease with t11;14 translocation.2 This involves a transposition (swapping) of parts of the 11th and 14th chromosomes – a phenomenon that happens during the development of a tumor.

Why is it important? These patients overexpress (or overproduce) BCL-2, a certain type of protein that keeps cancer cells alive longer.

“Discovering which patients are going to respond to which treatments – that excites me every day,” Bhathena says. “If one type of drug doesn’t work, there’s something else that will. We’ll find it.”

Bhathena has studied cancers in different patient populations, including Caucasians, African Americans, Asians and others. She believes this approach is critical to understanding cancer’s myriad of molecular pathways.

In the same spirit, she believes diversity among oncology researchers is also crucial to cancer research.

“It’s important to open yourself up to those nuances that come from people of different backgrounds,” she says. “It’s not just about having women on the staff, but people who come from different countries, who have experienced different healthcare systems and understand where unmet needs are.

“Having that heterogeneity in the way you’re tackling a problem can only be a good thing.”

Danelle James, M.D., M.A.S.

head of clinical science, Pharmacyclics, an AbbVie Company

Danelle James was a teenager when her grandfather developed lung cancer. “I was right by him as he went through this really horrible treatment with chemotherapy and radiation,” she says. “The day his doctor said he didn’t really have anything more for him, is probably the day I saw the biggest smile on my grandfather’s face over the course of those few months.

“It goes to that old adage, ‘The treatment is worse than the disease.’ The treatments we had for cancer were just not good enough.”

It was an experience that helped inspire James to choose a career in medical research. After earning her medical degree, she started studying patients with blood cancers and became a specialist in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) – a cancer that starts within B-cells, a type of white blood cell.

An estimated 105,000 persons globally were diagnosed with CLL during 2015, and 35,000 persons died from the disease.3 The five-year survival rate is 85 percent, but it varies by the stage of the disease.4

In studying CLL, James and a team of researchers realized that by blocking a certain enzyme (Bruton’s tyrosine kinase, or BTK), they could fight CLL in two ways – by:
  • Cutting down on the production of new, malignant (cancerous) cells 
  • Moving malignant cells out of their “micro-environment” – a support tumor environment of cells that keeps them alive
Discoveries like these keep James enthusiastic and hopeful about the future of cancer treatments.

“It was an unexpected success,” she adds. “In CLL, there’s not a specific ‘lesion’ you can target. It’s a heterogeneous blood cancer spread throughout the body. That’s why science has used the ‘blunt instrument’ of chemotherapy to treat it in the past.”

James took the concept further with clinical trials involving high-risk CLL patients – those who have developed certain gene or chromosome abnormalities. Those patients tend not to respond to chemotherapy and have high mortality rates.

“I'm really proud of the investment and dedication we have made,” she says. “Cancer is really smart, so constant innovation such as the kind we’re seeing from our research teams will be critical to helping patients in the future.”

James says her team gains strength from the diversity of its scientists. “In pharmaceutical research, breakthroughs occur when researchers start thinking about disease pathways from fresh angles,” she says.

“Having a wide representation of team members and staff, from all walks of life, means you’ll have scientists taking different approaches to solving problems. That creativity helps make scientific advances possible.”

  1. Multiple Myeloma: Statistics. Cancer.Net/American Society of Clinical Oncology.,disease%20will%20occur%20this%20year. Accessed July 26, 2020.
  2. Study of t11,14 translocation may offer “valuable real-world evidence” to advance myeloma treatment. HemOnc Today, June 22, 2018. Accessed July 26, 2020.
  3. Global Burden of Disease Cancer Collaboration, Fitzmaurice C, Allen C, Barber RM, et al. Global, regional, and national cancer incidence, mortality, years of life lost, years lived with disability, and disability-adjusted life-years for 32 cancer groups, 1990 to 2017: A systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study. JAMA Oncol. 2019;5(12):1749-1769
  4. Leukemia – Chronic Lymphocytic – CLL: Statistics. Cancer.Net/American Society of Clinical Oncology.,older%20with%20CLL%20is%2085%25. Accessed July 27, 2020.

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