Editor’s note: This story is part of our 2022 PharmaVoice 100 feature.
Our honoree: Johnna Wesley
Title: Vice president, Type 1 diabetes and kidney disease research, Novo Nordisk
The company’s focus: Novo Nordisk, a global pharmaceutical company headquartered in Denmark, is focused on driving change to defeat diabetes and other serious chronic diseases, including obesity. The company supplies more than 50% of the world’s insulin and more than 34 million patients use its diabetes care products, according to the company.
Wesley’s impact: As an immunologist and researcher, Wesley brings a wealth of experience and scientific insight to her multidimensional role at Novo Nordisk’s U.S. flagship research facility in Seattle. While focusing on how her team’s research serves “a bigger purpose,” Wesley’s work is also personal.
“With a nephew with Type 1 diabetes as well as other children and adults she has met over the years with this condition, she knows that the work she does every day can have a real impact on the lives of people living with Type 1 diabetes,” a colleague notes.
“With up to 10% of people with diabetes having Type 1, there is a critical need for innovations that could prevent or delay the onset of [the disease],” a nominator says. “[Wesley] and her team are working relentlessly to understand the real-world circumstances of patients and focus on the interface between biology, behavior and technology. They also lead an aspirational charge at Novo Nordisk to pioneer scientific breakthroughs that have the potential to cure and ultimately prevent this disease. Her team is focused on finding ways to stop beta cells — insulin-producing cells — in the pancreas from being destroyed by the immune system. To do this, they are working to discover therapies that would prevent immune cells from entering the pancreas, and if immune cells are already there, prevent them from attacking the beta cells.”
The Seattle team’s initiatives have already paid off with multiple clinical trials in the works “and more innovative ideas in progress.” In addition, Wesley and team are pursuing therapies — curative and preventative — for other chronic metabolic diseases, including diabetic kidney disease.
“This work involves characterization of the disease pathology in humans, translational biomarkers for predicting drug responses and disease outcome, and a novel in vitro platform in development for screening compounds and mechanistic studies,” one of her nominators says.
To help advance the science, Wesley helps her team to leverage outside-the-box approaches to innovation.
“She encourages all to avoid the well-trodden path, looking beyond the biology of what has been done and ask: ‘What can we do differently to better address patient needs and help people sooner?’ [Wesley] has a way of balancing scientific credibility with being a people manager and leader by showing that a person can truly listen and care about people while guiding them. By providing her team members with the green light to be creative, the confidence to be bold, and the autonomy to try new approaches, they can advance science while also growing professionally,” a nominator says.
Why Wesley is inspiring: Beyond clinical success, Wesley is also passionate about addressing health inequities, as well as fostering STEM initiatives to attract more girls and women into the life sciences.
“In response to social injustice events of 2020, [Wesley’s] leadership resulted in the formation of the Racial Equity Action Team (REAcT), and she remains the executive sponsor of this group. The initiative is unique to the Seattle research site and was created by Wesley and her colleagues to initiate sustainable, long-term activities to address racial inequality within the site and community. Through this program, the team has engaged with several organizations that support diversity in STEM through education, training opportunities and mentoring from kindergarten through college. The REAcT initiative also aims to help young girls to identify other ways to participate in STEM in their communities such as volunteering, shadowing, career paths and partnerships,” a nominator says.
“I’ve learned the importance of being vulnerable with my team and sharing my struggles and successes with them.”
Vice president, Type 1 diabetes and kidney disease research, Novo Nordisk
Wesley inspires her team by opening doors for others who may have otherwise been overlooked. One of her nominators says within the Novo Nordisk intern program, “she is mindful about recruiting women and students of color. For the first time at the site, the 2021 summer intern program was entirely female with seven female students of various backgrounds and experiences. Her work helps foster the next generation of female scientists.”
Further, Wesley is dedicated to paying her success forward as a mentor and believes it’s her role “to help girls and women in STEM find a voice, dream big, push scientific boundaries, and move outside of their comfort zones.”
In her own words: “I meet with young scientists to discuss my career path and give them advice; I don’t turn down a request for advice,” she says. “I also mentor junior team members at work to help them grow in their career and manage personal challenges. More recently, I’ve been more involved in diversity and inclusion efforts at work focused on providing more support and opportunities for students from underprivileged communities, and for women at all levels.”