August 18, 2020 / All Stories

The sailor, the painter, the medicine maker

Vice president of discovery Jose-Carlos Gutiérrez-Ramos shares his aspirations for AbbVie and his scientific journey towards joining the company.

Jose-Carlos Gutiérrez-Ramos, Ph.D., joined AbbVie as vice president of discovery in early February 2020.

Jose-Carlos (JC) Gutiérrez-Ramos, Ph.D., recently joined AbbVie as vice president, discovery.

At AbbVie, JC leads our early scientific efforts and ensures that our pipeline continues to produce innovative treatments for patients.

JC has had a long career in biopharma and science and despite joining AbbVie just prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic taking hold, is executing on a clear vision to drive our pipeline forward.

We sat down with JC to learn what excites him about AbbVie’s early pipeline, his background, and his endeavors outside of the lab.

So you joined AbbVie in early 2020 to lead our Discovery organization. Can you tell us what brought you here?

AbbVie had been on my radar for many years. I had previously worked with AbbVie as a partner and was impressed by the caliber of scientific leadership I saw and the level of science being done here.

I have worked in many different settings – academia, global pharmaceutical companies, biomedicine, smaller biotechs – and as I thought about what I wanted to do next, leading early scientific efforts at AbbVie stood out to me.

As one of the largest biopharmaceutical companies in the world, the work that we do has the potential to impact so many patients. The focus that AbbVie places on science is important to me.

Can you tell us about some of the science being done at AbbVie that you are excited about?

Well of course, top of mind for everyone is science being done to fight COVID-19. We recently began a collaboration with several leading institutions to work on an antibody treatment. We have scientists with years of expertise in virology, biologics and small molecule drug discovery, and it has been amazing to watch them spring into action.

Outside of that, I am impressed with the efforts that we have in targeted protein degradation, or what we call degradomers. Our degradomer platform is focusing on many diverse areas, including protein aggregates that generate cellular toxicity in neurons that result in Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s, mutant proteins that result in cancer, and targets that are not intercellular targets, which are not targetable with conventionally small molecules.

Every scientist I speak with is doing such interesting and amazing work. When I was visiting some labs just the other day, I struck up a conversation with Amanda Paustian, who is a scientist working on new treatments for cancer. Her work is focused on getting rid of cells inside a tumor that prevent the immune system from successfully destroying tumors. Through the removal of these cells, Amanda and her team hope to find a new way to unleash the tumor-specific immune response.

JC and senior scientist Amanda Paustian discuss her research on new treatments for cancer.

Our early stage collaborations are also very productive, including our collaboration with Calico, a company focused on aging research and other therapeutics. Teams of scientists at Calico and AbbVie are targeting an enzymatic class that was previously considered “undruggable.” Our scientists are working together to remove the break on cell signaling pathways that enable immune cells to kill tumors, providing a potential new option for cancer patients.

We also have invested in approaches that will benefit us in all different therapeutic areas, including in genetics and genomics, bioinformatics, and precision medicine.

With our recent acquisition of Allergan, we are exploring several opportunities to combine our expertise in various drug discovery approaches to supplement their industry-leading efforts in R&D with neurotoxins and ophthalmology, which is truly fascinating stuff.

These are just a few examples and at given time, there are hundreds of early stage approaches being explored in Discovery and the work being done will hopefully continue to bring important new treatments to patients.

We have to ask – what was it like starting a new job leading a global organization during a global pandemic?

I had all these exciting plans when I first started. I could not wait to visit all our labs and dive into learning about the science being done.

Of course, reality has been different and will be different. I have been so impressed with how our scientists have adapted and adjusted. In some cases, especially early on, our scientists continued to go into our labs to do their important work.

We have now adapted several new ways of working that allow us to have a larger number of scientists safely in our labs. More than anything else, it became apparent to me just how passionate our scientists are about their various projects.

While not an ideal situation to start a new role, seeing the level of commitment from my team only reaffirmed my decision to join AbbVie.

How has your experience prepared you to continue AbbVie’s commitment to helping patients?

For a while, I worked with small, startup biopharmaceutical companies. I have founded two myself and was fortunate enough to send those companies into the public market all with the intention to better the scientific world.

Being in a leadership role in a startup required agile, transparent, consistent leadership to build a successful, long lasting company. I want to continue that style of leadership here and AbbVie has created a culture where that is possible.

I joined AbbVie because I recognized the potential to have an even bigger impact on new medicines for patients. My past experiences gave me the knowledge I needed to understand science on a smaller scale to effectively lead the early R&D efforts on a larger scale.

(From left to right) JC stands in formation in the Spanish Navy; a young JC early in his budding career; JC celebrates ringing the bell at Nasdaq.

You trained as a Navy sailor when you were younger. Can you describe what that experience was like?

I did not always plan to go into science. I was born on a Navy base in Northern Spain and come from a long line of sailors. Growing up, I always expected to follow in the footsteps of those in my family, so, as a young man many years ago, I was trained as a sailor.

While I was a sailor, I made a turn around the world in a tall ship that helped shape who I am today. My time as a sailor taught me perseverance and how to tie many knots, but eventually, I realized I had a different calling.

What made you realize that?

My father played a major role in my career shift. After also serving as a Spanish Navy sailor, he broke the mold in his 40s when he returned to school for journalism and ultimately became an accomplished broadcast journalist – he was like the Walter Cronkite of Spain!

He always encouraged his children to follow their passions, and I was inspired by his determination and courage to try something different, which is why I began to explore science.

What is your vision for the future of Discovery?

There are three main things that I am focused on.

First, I of course, want us to continue to advance our pipeline. To accomplish that, we need to prioritize our programs that have the best shot at success and give them the right resources. We need to focus on programs and platforms that have the chance of impacting the most patients who are living with many different diseases.

I want to shift towards human-based drug discovery. We want to dig deeper into key technologies and interrogate human molecular pathobiology at the single cell level. We also are investing in various artificial intelligence approaches that allow us to better analyze and model our data.

And finally, our focus needs to increasingly be on long-term remissions and cures. We want to commit to a certain proportion of our pipeline to ultimately provide therapies that have a good chance to cure a small number of diseases. And we have a few good examples in our pipeline that, if successful, would do just that such as our efforts in HIV functional cure and cystic fibrosis.

This might be a lofty goal, but we must continue to evolve with the demands of our patients and society as a whole.

JC takes a moment to reflect on his career journey.

I am told that you enjoy painting. Tell us more about that.

I do enjoy painting. I prefer to paint large canvasses, where there is more forgiveness for errors in my work. Often, I must go back to correct my mistakes and sometimes that means ending up with a completely different painting than what I originally intended. But sometimes, that is how I come up with my best pieces.

I think the scientific discovery process is comparable to that. Researching, testing, and discovering a drug for a disease is similar in the sense that the process can be frustrating and lead to what appears to be a dead end. I have painted many canvasses that I did not think were salvageable. But sometimes, in science and in painting, when you go back to examine what went wrong, you learn something new and see a different insight that opens you up to a new possibility.

Looking back on all your experiences, is there any advice you would give to all the young scientists out there?

Always remember that science will win. I say that phrase almost every day – I even have a sign that says it in my yard! This pandemic has brought a lot of disruption into our lives, but one good thing is that more and more people than ever before are turning to, trusting, and believing in science, which is such a motivator for me to get up and go to work every day.

(From left to right) JC’s Foreign Affairs Wine Bar & Bistro restaurant; a plated meal from JC’s restaurant menu; JC’s painted canvas of his two children.

What do you like to do outside of the office?

I enjoy a nice glass of wine and relaxing with my family. I owned a wine bar and restaurant for a period before joining AbbVie. I love to cook and always try to make plates that are pleasing to the eye. Empowering my creative side is important to me because you need to use both sides of your brain all the time, whether you are making dinner or trying to discover a new medicine for patients.

I always try to live my life to the fullest and fill my days doing things that energize and excite me. And I feel so lucky that my career has brought me that in spades. I cannot think of a better job than being able to help lead the discovery of new medicines for patients who need them most.

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Gabrielle Tarbert
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