Megan Thomas shines a spotlight on Adele Hannigan, CBO for Antibody Analytics. She outlines how her interest in immunotherapy began and what keeps it alive today.
MT: What has you career path looked like? Were there any key moments or milestones that led you to where you are today?
AH: I am Chief Business Officer for Antibody Analytics, a collaborative immunology CRO, specialising in supporting immunotherapy developers at the discovery to pre-clinical stages of the drug development process. We want to drive innovative immunotherapy developers to success by providing our expertise to generate high quality data to get the most promising drug candidates into the clinic, and ultimately to the patients who need them, faster.
I started off studying chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, and it was during an industrial placement as a synthetic organic chemist for a pharmaceutical company (Organon) that my interest in biology was piqued. I was sending tens to hundreds of newly synthesised compounds (new chemical entities) for testing to the pharmacology department and receiving binding constants back in return. I wondered to myself, what do these numbers mean? How are these new compounds being tested and what’s the significance of these tests? It was then I knew I wanted to change tack and enter the biology side.
This decision was pivotal to leading me to cancer research. I was fortunate to join the four-year Wellcome Trust PhD programme, which allowed me to dabble in three areas of biology (genetics/ molecular biology, virology and parasitology) before embarking on my PhD, which combined elements of all of these placements. I went on from studying transgenic mice expressing Latent Membrane Protein 1 of Epstein Barr Virus using proteomics, molecular biology and biochemistry techniques to delineating the contribution of LMP1 to viral induced carcinogenesis.
After that, I was hooked, and undertook post-doctoral training in the Beatson Institute in Glasgow, studying the dichotomous role of TGFbeta signalling in breast cancer. Although I embraced basic scientific research, I decided I wanted to apply my skills in a more translational sense, closer to making a difference to patients. I used my training to secure a job in Sydney, with a small biotechnology company developing a novel platform technology, antibody-targeted, drug-loaded nanoparticles for the treatment of cancer. I loved being a part of something unique, exciting and closer to patients. It was my first foray into investigational drug testing in clinical trials and I found it very rewarding.
On my return to Scotland, I established the process development team of a cell therapy company, kitting out the lab from scratch and building my own team of scientists. Joining a start-up was a steep learning curve, but it gave me incredible exposure to so many critical elements of a life sciences business; grant writing, technical transfer, clinical trial applications, developing (and patent protecting) new technology, building partnerships and establishing collaborations, identifying technology to in license, out-licensing, the list goes on.
I realised there was so much more to learn, and so decided to make the transition to the commercial side, starting in Business Development. I have now been with Antibody Analytics for three and half years.
MT: What do you wish you had known when you started your career?
AH: I wish had been aware of the wealth of career paths open to scientists, the possibilities are wide-ranging, and yet, my experience was that university education seemed narrowly focused on academic paths and they don’t adequately prepare you, or even expose you to the career options available. In a straw poll of some of my PhD friends, they have gone on to pursue academic research, become clinical consultants in the NHS, teachers, medical communicators, clinical trial designers, life sciences business developers, medical science liaisons, drug developers, the list goes on… I’m not sure many of us were aware of these options or where we would end up if you had asked us back in our student days.
MT: Who or what inspires you?
AH: I couldn’t single out any one person in my journey, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many talented scientists and entrepreneurs in every organisation I have worked in, but the number one attribute I find most inspiring is passion. Passion for your job and your purpose. No matter the position you hold, if an individual is passionate about what they are trying to achieve, then I find them the most inspiring and rewarding to work alongside. They are often open to sharing their expertise and views, which means you can learn a lot from these individuals.
MT: What drives you professionally and personally?
AH: I find the field of immunotherapy hugely interesting, and the sheer volume of the different approaches that are under investigation for the treatment of diseases are astounding; antibodies, immune cell engagers, cell therapies, stem-cell derived therapies, immunocytokines, ADCs… My curiosity to understand the scientific rationale and potential of these approaches is a big driver for me.
But beyond the obvious reasons of the scientific interest and the potential to positively impact patient’s lives, I find entering new areas of expertise keeps me engaged. I have faced countless new professional challenges over the last few years, where I have found myself outside of my comfort zone, but these have also provided me with new opportunities for growth. I feel like I am always learning and I believe this is one of my main motivators.
MT: What excites you about your current role and the business?
AH: As a discovery-focused CRO, we are exposed to some of the newest, and I think most exciting scientific approaches. I get to meet some of the entrepreneurial minds behind them and discuss their challenges. As a company, we get to play our part in helping our partners reach the next milestone, guiding them on their way. Every step in my career has gradually incorporated more immunology, and I find this area fascinating, especially starting off my career as a chemist (I recall as a PhD student thinking that immunology was a step too far for me to understand). The different approaches that are being taken to either stimulate, such as immune cell engaging antibodies, or even hijack, the immune system – such as engineered cell therapies are truly fascinating to me.
I love being part of a growing organisation. We undergo constant evolution, which throws up new challenges and opportunities in equal measure. In my role as CBO, I have the ability to influence the direction of the business. We are a unique organisation for our size, with a range of expertise under one roof; immunology, molecular biology, cell biology, biophysical and bioanalytical. Meaning there are many directions in which we can opt to take the business to grow further. Having the ability to influence that and chart the direction at Antibody Analytics is hugely exciting to me.
MT: What do you think will be key future trends in therapeutic antibodies?
AH: I believe that we will see a rise in higher order antibodies and multi-specific, antibody-based molecules. This is already apparent with the huge number of immune cell engagers in development, and many approved, but we will see more of these, beyond the conventional TAAxCD3 T cell engagers. New T cell targets (e.g. CD28, checkpoints, agonists and others) and receptors on alternative immune cell types, NK cells being the obvious, but also less typical immune cells will become more prominent as we begin to understand the biology of these cell types more deeply.
Another area I believe has potential are TCR-like antibodies, the power of these lie in the ability to target the intracellular proteome which is vast. Presently, there has been very little progress in the number of available targets for antibody-based therapeutics, particularly in oncology / immuno-oncology, with the variety of modalities rising faster than the number of new targets, resulting in ‘herding’ in drug pipelines. TCR-mimetics could provide an alternative solution to this, opening up a new universe of targets, however, we will need more tools to support their research and development.
DDW Volume 24 – Issue 3, Summer 2023 – Therapeutic Antibody Guide