Editor’s note: This story is part of our 2022 PharmaVoice 100 feature.
Our honoree: Karin Jooss
Her position: Head of research and development, executive vice president, Gritstone bio
The company: A clinical stage biotech, Gritstone is working to advance a pipeline of vaccines aimed at cancer. Its two lead candidates — including an “off the shelf” immunotherapy for cancer — are in phase 2 and have “shown strong immune data and early signs of clinical benefit in advanced stage patients,” a nominator says.
The company also has a COVID-19 shot it’s developing as a booster that’s in early clinical trials, and an HIV “treatment/cure” that’s also in an early clinical trial in collaboration with Gilead.
Her impact: Dubbed an “engine of innovation” by her nominator, Jooss has been a trail-blazing drug developer for more than 20 years while specializing in vaccines.
At Pfizer, she “built the company’s cancer vaccine program from scratch and took it to the clinic,” her nominator says.
While at Cell Genesys, a company focused on cell-based oncology immunotherapies and virus-based gene therapies, a former colleague says Jooss was a “pioneering scientist, passionate” and a “visionary.”
“The mark [Jooss] has left on this industry is rooted in her work on cancer immunotherapy — a field that she has been committed to for decades — long before it became a ‘hot space’ in our industry and when there were few believers in the viability and potential impact of these novel approaches for cancer,” a nominator says.
In addition to cancer, Jooss has brought her outside-the-box thinking to the fast-paced world of COVID-19 vaccine development.
“Unlike others in the field, [Jooss] and her team [at Gritstone] aimed to develop a vaccine with potential for both prolonged protection and potency, including against emerging spike mutant forms of Sars-CoV-2,” a nominator writes. “Anticipating the virus would mutate, they believed a broader immune response would help with providing protection.”
Why she’s inspiring: “Beyond her acumen as a scientist, [Jooss] was able to reach these achievements because she is a natural, dedicated leader who is committed to the success and growth of those she works with,” a nominator says.
As a leader, Jooss takes a collaborative approach, encouraging team members to share their views with the belief that it will lead to better scientific outcomes, colleagues say.
“In addition to her day-to-day activities, [Jooss] serves as a mentor to many across the company,” a nominator says. “She stands apart as an example of how determination, positivity and tenacity can help you meet your goals.”
“Every great leader is a teacher. I take great pride in helping everyone on my team to develop to his or her potential.”
Head of research and development, Gritstone bio
Others note how Jooss has overcome challenges throughout her career — some that partly stem from being a woman.
“[Jooss] has made a name for herself as a strong female leader in biotechnology,” a nominator says. “I have always appreciated and respected [Jooss], not only for the work she’s done over the years, but how she has navigated this male-dominated industry — never wavering in her beliefs and always having the courage to speak her mind.”
But these aren’t the kinds of issues that vex Jooss the most. When asked what keeps her up at night, she says it’s the excitement — and complexities — of the science.
“It’s always the next experiment,” Jooss says “Every time new data come in, it opens a variety of potential scientific pathways forward or in a new direction. The key for us is to move our technology platform forward in the most efficient way possible while keeping the most interesting new ideas alive and supported.”
In her own words: “The COVID pandemic opened my eyes to the wide possibilities for using our platform and tools for treating a variety of infectious diseases. Once I realized the wide applicability of our tools, huge opportunities opened for applications in other disease processes.”