There was 10 years of work when most of the population started hearing about the Human Genome Project. Only when Jurassic Park came out, then people started understanding the genome.
So, I joined the Human Genome Project as a post-doc in 1990 at MIT. There had been two or three years of a lot of controversy in the scientific literature whether it would be helpful to sequence the genome. That’s what I was known for — mapping the physical map of the human genome …. “Gen” from gene and “ome” from chromosome. It’s that information in our genes and chromosomes that we inherit from our parents that we give to our children that can be abnormal in some diseases.
Most of the science is still, right now, being applied more to finding ways to treat cancer when you detect it. Then we started thinking, how can we actually start using those drugs at an earlier setting? It’s a concept that’s been studied a lot in human genetics … when you can identify someone’s at risk, when do you actually do the test? And we try to have some concept in medicine called “when you can actually do something about it.”
For example, if I knew I had a gene for Alzheimer’s disease, but there’s nothing that I could do about it, most physicians and most medical ethicists would say don’t test, because you don’t know what to do with it.
But if a drug comes out which can delay the appearance of disease from age 55 to 65, I’d be the first one to be tested, because then I could modify the appearance. So the concept is not just the knowledge of mutations, but the knowledge of a modifiable risk is quite important in medicine.
Personalized medicine sometimes is best defined by thinking about one woman speaking to another and saying, “You know, we both have breast cancer, but we don’t have the same disease, and that’s why we’re not treated the same way.”
And when we start looking at what’s causing the tumor to grow quickly in this breast cancer versus another, we see it’s driven by different genes, different proteins. And the more we understand that, the more we try to specifically turn off that gene that’s specifically activating a patient’s tumor.
I was starting, in my last job, developing experimental diagnostics — experimental therapeutics — working more with industry in terms of clinical trials, in terms of moving some of our ideas and hypotheses toward drugs. But I wanted to go to a place which actually wanted to really incorporate the new knowledge.
The knowledge of genetics, the knowledge of immunology … and bring it to drive drug development, and I felt that AbbVie had that intention, had that motivation, and the company was poised to actually do that transition from a more traditional pharmaceutical company to a science-driven biopharma company