March 12, 2020 / All Stories

Scientists Rock! Life in the fast lane

Fast and furious discovery scientist, Blaine Stine, revs his innovative engines to unearth the next great medicine.

W. Blaine Stine, Ph.D., director, global biologics, discovery, AbbVie, takes a spin around the racetrack.

Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of the lab to hear what makes them tick. This month, we chat with W. Blaine Stine Ph.D., director, global biologics, discovery, AbbVie.

Blaine Stine’s passion for sports cars and racing circuits started early; just ask his 5th grade teacher who gave him an A+ for an essay detailing the legendary awesomeness of the Porsche. Back then, his burgeoning thoughts surrounded the speed, efficiency and all-around coolness of the racetrack. Now older and wiser, his fascination with automobiles remains -- on the sidelines -- as he focuses his days racing to discover the next great antibody.

Tell us the story of how you fell in love with science.

My love of science goes back to the first grade when my father encouraged my budding scientific curiosity. I remember him demonstrating how to shine a copper penny with liquid mercury (*not recommended to those unfamiliar with safety procedures as it can be quite dangerous). Sometimes he’d even bring home liquid nitrogen in his coffee thermos to demonstrate how I could freeze rubber bands and then snap them in half. One day he brought home an adventurous read titled “The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments,” a book pulled off the shelves soon after being published because it was found to be too dangerous for its intended audience (especially me as a kid). Even so, he helped equip a small laboratory in one of our bathrooms gathering up all the proper lab equipment and solutions, and we methodically worked our way cover to cover tackling each experiment. One not-so-minor mishap which almost landed me in the hospital was when I made chlorine gas. With no parental guidance and blindly following instructions, I ended up with a face full of chlorine gas. With my dad unavailable, my panicked mother sought help from a family friend who suggested smelling salts (ammonia) and a steamy shower to help restore my ability to breathe. Needless to say, I survived to tell the tale. Fun times, indeed!

I understand you are a member of AbbVie’s discovery team. For us non-scientific people, can you explain what exactly it is that you do?

I am in a very fortunate role working on the discovery of new medicines. Our team works on finding new antibodies (or incredibly powerful proteins). We work together with discovery teams in Oncology, Immunology, Neuroscience and Virology to develop antibodies in the laboratory that help us understand the fundamental biology of disease. Some of these antibodies are also potential new therapeutics. What makes antibodies so powerful is their ability to recognize a very small detail in a highly complex background. Imagine a tool that could immediately find a single burned out lightbulb in the middle of Times Square; this is what antibodies are capable of. We use this unique ability to target proteins in the body that are involved in different diseases and are currently developing antibodies to help people with cancer, autoimmune diseases, viral infections and Alzheimer’s Disease. My diverse team of immunologists, biochemists, protein engineers and computer scientists are all committed to taking on the challenge of discovering new antibodies that we hope one day will become our next medical breakthrough.

Is it true you once worked as a smalltime chef?

As an engineering (and eventual molecular biology) undergraduate in San Diego, I worked part-time as a chef in a small French restaurant in La Jolla, California. A friend of mine had a job working for the catering department at the restaurant and was bragging to the owner what a great cook I was. Even though I told the owner I was completely self-taught with no formal training, he threw caution to the wind and hired me on the spot! I learned so much in that small, hot kitchen including such things as working with puff pastry and the importance of being economical using all the trimmings to make stocks and the traditional French “mother sauces.”

Any overlapping similarities between being a chef and your current role of discovery scientist?

One of the coolest things about my time spent in school and working in a laboratory setting is being able to make connections between science and everyday things, some as seemingly simple as a loaf of bread. I love baking and when I bake a loaf of traditional French levain (or sourdough) there are only 4 ingredients: flour, water, salt and a levain culture also known as sourdough starter. I’ve had my current starter for almost 10 years, and it is a wonderfully complex mix of living bacteria and strains of yeast. I know from working in the lab how different growth conditions can favor certain strains of bacteria over others. This is completely true for a sourdough starter, too. I can adjust the type of flour, or the ratio of flour to water, or the temperature that I keep the starter at and create a starter that favors a sharper “sour” flavor in the bread. Or I can change those conditions so that they favor a type of bacteria called ‘lactobacillus’ that make lactic acid giving the final bread a sweeter more mellow flavor. And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how these four ingredients all come together to produce limitless types of breads! I love using what I’ve learned in the lab to better understand how things work together … while also being able to bake a tasty loaf of bread!

Where do you see your area of science changing and/or innovating in the next 10 years?

I envision my area of discovery science converging with other disciplines and harnessing vast amounts of data in ways that will bring the next round of innovation in the discovery of new medicines. The challenge will be understanding how it all fits together. Take for example how businesses in the financial sector are using big data, affordable computing power, and advanced analytics such as machine learning, to figure out things like how much risk there is with a loan, or how to balance a financial portfolio. In our area of science, if we successfully build large data sets that can feed advanced analytics, we will be able to find new patterns and relationships between the structure and function of novel medicines. I am optimistic that over the next 10 years we will see data-driven medicinal discovery that will accelerate innovation, improve the probability of success and benefit more people.

I understand you are a lover of all things cars and racetracks. Can you explain your fascination?

Since I was a little kid, I have always loved playing with cars. I had my first subscription to Road & Track Magazine in the third grade. I remember visiting my grandparents when I was young and being able to indulge my automotive obsession going to the historic races in California at Laguna Seca (in Monterey) or the Councours d’Elegance (at Pebble Beach). My passion for cars has remained strong into my adult years; I’ve been driving and racing cars for about the past 15 years. I started off by attending “Drivers Education” events with local clubs which gave me my first taste of driving around a racetrack. I was immediately hooked and moved on to competitive events. About 5 years ago, I earned my full competition racing license and carved out a few long weekends to spend time at racetracks from Mount Tremblant in Canada to Virginia International Raceway (VIR).

I understand you hold weekly office hours with your team which involves homemade bread. How exactly does this delicious confection play into the mix?

Yes, I truly enjoy my Friday morning office hours with my team. This weekly morning ritual provides my team with an opportunity to connect on a more personal level. All are welcome to join and to talk about (literally) anything: professional, personal or otherwise. As mentioned above, a not-so-secret passion of mine is my love of breadmaking. I enjoy the process of transforming flour, water and salt into all sorts delicious breads. I am well known among my team for bringing a loaf of naturally leavened bread that I’ve baked in my wood-fired oven to these weekly gatherings. We throw in some fresh Vermont butter and coffee for good measure and let our taste buds soar while we chat!

In your opinion, why does science rock?

Science is the best. It helps us understand the world around us and why things simply “are.” Science is for people like me who always ask “well, why is that?” and feeds our eternal curiosity. Science also helps us see the elegance in our world and how amazing things truly are.

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