International Women’s Day: Female achievement in drug discovery

The theme for International Women’s Day 2022 is ‘Break the Bias’, in which society is encouraged to celebrate women’s achievements, in turn raising awareness against bias and inspiring positive action for equality. Though the initiative is interdisciplinary, the drug discovery, life science and pharmaceutical world boasts many achievements of this nature. DDW’s Megan Thomas has highlighted the achievements of inspirational women who have achieved great things in the industry.

Katalin Karikó

Katalin Karikó is the mRNA researcher that helped pave the way for the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines, which have been pivotal to the international recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. Karikó left her birthplace in Hungary in 1985 with her husband, child and £900 hidden in a child’s toy, to pursue an academic career in the US. In 1989, she joined the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, where she saw that mRNA was viable alongside her colleagues. Seven years on and there are calls for her and her colleague Drew Weissmann to receive a Nobel prize for medicine. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Karikó.

Adding to the reasons why it is so important to recognise Karikó and her journey, other than her sheer scientific rigour and merit, it has been reported that throughout her time as a researcher Karikó endured sexism, underwent a cancer scare and was overlooked for promotion. But after a Canadian stem cell biologist read a paper written by Karikó and Weissmann, they found financial backing and Karikó was offered two jobs: one at Moderna and the other at BioNTech.

Back in January 2021, Karikó said that until a mass vaccination programme has begun to make headway on the virus, she won’t be happy. As of February 28, 20221, Statista reported that approximately 325 million Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines had been administered worldwide, and 208 million Moderna vaccines following in second.

Sarah Gilbert

Given the events of the last two years, it comes as no surprise that trailblazers in the fight against Covid-19 are heralded for their achievements. It is due to quick action from Professor Gilbert, Professor of Vaccinology in the Nuffield Department of Medicine at the University of Oxford – now Dame Sarah Gilbert – and her team that work on the response to the then-new virus began.

The RSA Albert Medal is awarded annually to recognise the creativity and innovation of individuals and organisations working to resolve the challenges of our time and Professor Gilbert received the 2021 honour for her services to collaborative innovation for the global common good. She is the 156th  recipient of the medal, which was instituted in 1864 as a memorial to Prince Albert, former President of the Society. Previous recipients range from scientists to artists to leaders to social campaigners, including female powerhouse Marie Curie in 1910 for the discovery of radium.

Tara Heitner

Since 2020, Dr Tara Heitner has been the CEO of Cyxone, a Swedish company that develops disease modifying therapies for diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis as well as treatments for virally induced acute respiratory disorders. Heitner has more than 20 years’ experience from R&D, management and board positions in the biotech and pharma industry.

In 2014, Heitner founded her own consultancy company, Heitner Biopharm Consultation, which focuses on strategic, financing and business development advice for small biotech companies and start-ups. But Heitner doesn’t stop there. She is a prominent player in the start-up world: she is the co-founder of a number of start-ups spun out from universities such as Lund University in Sweden and Aarhus University in Denmark.

Terezia Prikrylova

Terezia Prikrylova is the Chief Operating Officer at Hemispherian, a Norwegian preclinical pharmaceutical company focused on developing a novel class of small molecule drugs. These drugs target the TET2 enzyme as an epigenetic therapy for particularly aggressive cancers.

Prikrylova joined Hemispherian in 2019 after completing her PhD at Oslo University Hospital (OUHS), where she discovered the cytotoxic effect of the drug candidates advanced by Hemispherian, while working in Adam Roberston’s laboratory at OUHS. Her findings were published in Nature Scientific Reports.

Kiri Granger

Kiri Granger is the Chief Scientific Officer of Monument Therapeutics who is internationally recognised as an expert in the design of clinical trials for CNS disorders, particularly schizophrenia. As Director of Neuroscience at Cambridge Cognition, Granger provided consultancy to over 50 drug development companies on more than 100 clinical trials and was the lead scientist on a number of successful programmes.

Granger chaired the ICSTM working group on schizophrenia clinical trials and is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham, Department of Psychology where she is involved in on-going collaborative projects following her PhD research in cognitive and behavioural markers of schizophrenia and anxiety disorders.

Monika Paule

Monika Paule is an Associated Professor at Vilnius Tech University and CEO and co-founder of CasZyme, a research company in Lithuania’s Sunrise Valley in Vilnius, which aims to deliver inventions by novel and research activities in the field of CRISPR based Molecular Tools. Given the key CRISPR breakthrough came in 2012, the company’s founding in 2017 shows both proactivity and innovation.

That’s just one aspect of Paule’s career, though. She also founded an edtech company called Paulai Tech, which develops a platform for children’s education on STEM related activities. She has also founded ’Women in Biotech, a platform which encourages women leadership in the life science sector and claims to be the first and only platform in Lithuania encouraging women leadership in the life science sector.

In an interview about EU women in biotech3, Paule said: “Being a female CEO in the biotech industry is still very rare, thus I always had to work much harder than others to achieve my goals. I always had to prove myself and I also had to overcome cultural and gender barriers. My goal is to encourage women to enter the biotech industry to develop their ideas, to establish biotech companies and together reshape this industry to be in favour of both genders.”

Deana Mohr

Deana Mohr is the CEO of MUVON Therapeutics, a life science spin-off from the University of Zurich with the goal of accelerating a personalised cell therapy for the regeneration of skeletal muscle tissue. The results of Mohr’s PhD thesis were the final step before the authorisation of the muscle tissue-engineering project for clinical translation.

Motivated by this contribution, she continued her education in clinical trial management, built up an international consortium and prepared for a Horizon2020 grant for the translation of the project from bench to bedside, thus establishing the MUS.I.C project. To further develop and commercialise the project, she founded MUVON in 2020.

Keolebogile Shirley Motaung

Professor Keolebogile Shirley Motaung is a Biomedical Scientist and the Assistant Dean in charge of Postgraduate Studies, Research, Innovation and Engagement in the Faculty of Science at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in South Africa. She is the Founder and CEO of Global Health Biotech. In 2006, she was the first woman at TUT to receive a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue her doctorate at University of California, Davis, USA. Currently, she is the only black female and person in South Africa holding a D.Tech (Biomedical Technology) specialising in tissue engineering of articular cartilage

Professor Motaung has won a number of awards in South Africa for “bridging the gap between science and entrepreneurship”4. In 2018, she won the Research for Innovation Award of the National Science and Technology Forum and also was voted Most Innovative Woman of the Year at the Gauteng Women of Excellence Awards. In 2020, she won the Shining Light Award for Science and Technology from the Motsepe Foundation.

Professior Motaung has been recognised for her commitment to both research and commercialisation. Speaking to Catherine Jewell from the Information and Digital Outreach Division at the World Intellectual Property Organization4, she said: “These days, universities depend on government subsidies. That needs to change. Governments need to encourage universities to commercialise the IP that flows from their research. That’s why I am working to change the way we write research proposals. Of course, it’s great that researchers publish their work, but it’s also important that they think about how their work can benefit the community and create jobs both for themselves and others. In the past, we have given precedence to academic excellence, only for our best students to join the ranks of the unemployed. Now, we need to motivate them to create marketable products and services from their research, so they generate benefits for themselves and the community”.

Evelina Vågesjö

Evelina Vågesjö is the CEO and co-founder Ilya Pharma, a clinical stage biopharmaceutical company developing immunotherapies treating diseases of skin and mucosa. She was born and raised in Småland, Sweden, where she started her research in ways to help the body heal hard-to-heal wounds as a project for her PhD thesis at Uppsala University5. There, she developed and continues to refine methods to steer immune cell functions and delineated a new mechanism of action during in tissue regeneration. Her findings led to the co-founding of Ilya Pharma in 2016.

Vågesjö and Ilya Pharma has gone from strength to strength, which can be observed in the company’s continued financial backing and recognition. In 2017, ILYA Pharma won the ATTD Startup grant, the VINNOVA Innovative Startups programme, the SweLife Accelerator grant, and finished the year being awarded €3 million from the H2020 EU SME programme. In 2018, the company announced that it had raised an additional €3 million in a new targeted share issue. In 2019, Vågesjö and the achievements of Ilya Pharma were recognised by MIT Tech Review Innovators under 35. In 2020, Ilya Pharma was awarded €5.3 million from EIC Accelerator to fast-track Phase II study of first-in-class ILPI100 advanced therapy for wound treatment in people with diabetes. The future looks bright.



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