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Intrigued by science from an early age, Dr. Jane Parnes set her sights on becoming a doctor. Then during a summer program for high school students she was introduced to the world of biology, which set her on her a multi-disciplinary career path.
Parnes is now the proverbial triple threat: physician, researcher and teacher. She considers each role integral to her career success, which also includes drug development.
“I actually like them all in different ways,” she says. “Seeing patients gave me the satisfaction of making a difference to individual patient’s lives. Research was satisfying in a very different way because it’s the intellectual curiosity of finding something new and looking for answers to questions that you and others have had. Teaching, of course, is also satisfying — interacting with incredibly bright students who are stimulating and make you understand why you do what you do.”
After pivotal roles at MIT and the National Institutes of Health, which honed her focus on the field of molecular immunology. Her post-doc work led her to join Stanford, where during her 24-year career she conducted immunology research while seeing rheumatology patients. She was a tenured professor, with no intention of leaving, when in 2006, Amgen offered her the opportunity to translate pre-clinical science into clinical studies for real-life patients.
Today, as executive medical director, early development at Amgen, Parnes has helped guide clinical research for upwards of 30 of the company’s investigational molecules, including the newly approved Tezspire for severe asthma — one of her career highlights.
In this week’s WoW podcast, Parnes speaks about how her experiences as a clinician, researcher and teacher have impacted her career and view on patient care, and how she approaches the process of bringing early-stage candidates forward as possible treatments.
Welcome to WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice, powered by Industry Dive.
In this episode, Taren Grom, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus at PharmaVoice meets with Dr. Jane Parnes, executive medical director, Early Development, Amgen.
Taren: Dr. Parnes, welcome to our WoW podcast program.
Dr. Parnes: Thank you so much for having me, Taren. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Taren: Jane, I understand you were intrigued by science at a very early age and wanted to be a doctor from the get-go. What piqued this interest for you? I’m fascinated.
Dr. Parnes: It’s actually a little silly in some respect but when I was very young and I talked to my mom about her path. She was a teacher but she had studied psychology and had wanted to be a psychologist. I thought that would be a fascinating field because of the ability to understand human behavior, and she told me then the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist and how a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who could then prescribe medicines as well as doing other types of therapy.
I grew up thinking I wanted to go to medical school because I wanted to be a psychiatrist. But this was elementary school perhaps, but it stuck for a long time. Of course, my interest changed over time but I wound up going to medical school and becoming a doctor.
Taren: That’s a wonderful story. And have we figured out human behavior yet? I don’t know yet, am I right?
Dr. Parnes: No. No, and that’s not the field I chose to study.
Taren: Let’s talk about the field that you chose to study. Was it during high school biology class that led you to a dual career as a clinician and researcher?
Dr. Parnes: Pretty much. I had a fantastic high school biology teacher who encouraged the students who were perhaps the most interested ones to go further than what our high school offered. There were a series of programs sponsored by the National Science Foundation at that time for high school students, and I went to one at his encouragement in biology at Syracuse University.
To me, this was biology summer camp. I had never gone away from home before, and I spent a summer learning about Watson’s molecular biology of the gene – I thought it was absolutely fascinating. Those of us who did well that summer were invited back for another summer, which was after my junior year of high school, to do research in the lab. At that point, I studied Drosophila genetics. Drosophila are fruit flies. I thought research was absolutely fantastic.
After that, I had to make a decision as to whether to get a PhD in biology and do research or go to medical school and see patients but of course, medical school provided the opportunity to do both research and see patients, and so that was the path I chose.
Taren: That’s fascinating. I’m always intrigued by people who find their passions so young in life. How has that passion fueled you throughout the rest of your career, because now you’re balancing these two roles as you’ve progressed.
Dr. Parnes: My role at Stanford really did involve a balancing of those two different fields and activities; in addition, one could add teaching to that. And it was not trivial to try to do all three – the proverbial triple threat is what we used to call it. Because research is extremely demanding, you need to do the work, you need to raise the money from grants in order to do the science that you want to do. You need to hire people who can work in your lab to do the work along with you and you need to publish it in order to make a difference and be successful.
Similarly, the clinical work is all consuming. When you’re on service, you’re seeing patients. Patients can have problems at any time, day or night. So if you’re on service, you are on call and you need to be available. It doesn’t matter whether you have a grant deadline.
And then teaching of course thrown in there along the way, as well, is another commitment that’s also important to the students.
It is a struggle, and I think many people over time have decided to drop one or the other of the activities. I stuck with it for many, many years until I came to Amgen and then things changed. But it was rewarding to do both, but not an easy path.
Taren: Well, you said it was a triple threat. So out of those three, did you have a preference for one of those avenues over another?
Dr. Parnes: I actually like them all in different ways. Seeing patients gave me the satisfaction of making a difference to individual patients’ lives. Sometimes you could only make them more comfortable, sometimes you could cure a disease. So that was immediately rewarding as a person and as an interpersonal relationship, you were able to see the fruits of your labor right there and it is a feel good story when you help somebody who is in need.
The research I think was satisfying in a very different way because it’s the intellectual curiosity of finding something new, looking for answers to questions that you have and that others have had and discovering something that is going to contribute new knowledge to the world, perhaps we do creation of new medicines downstream, a long way off in general. But both were satisfying in their own way.
Teaching, of course, is also satisfying. I didn’t do as much of that while I was at Stanford although the last couple of years I taught a course. But there, you’re interacting with incredibly bright students who are stimulating and made you understand why you’re doing all the other things that you’re doing and hoping to inspire them to follow along and do either research or medicine.
Taren: Lovely. While you were at Stanford, you were doing some immunology research. What drew you to that field because there were a lot of areas of focus you could have gone into?
Dr. Parnes: I became interested in immunology during medical school. We had a terrific immunology course and then several of us decided to ask for additional immunology courses that were not being offered at the time. While I was a medical resident, there was a course that was offered at Mass General Hospital on the molecular biology of antibody diversity.
It was fascinating to me how the immune system could recognize the world of foreign antigens, meaning foreign material that you come into contact with, often microorganisms, bacteria, viruses but other sorts of things as well. How does the immune system recognize all of it – it was a mystery for a long time but around the time I was a resident, there was the first findings of gene rearrangements in antibody genes that would enable the creation of antibodies recognizing millions of potential antigens that you might come into contact with.
I was sold. That was an area that I thought was just incredibly exciting. I decided that I wanted to go into the field of molecular immunology and my post doc at NIH was in that field and cemented that interest.
Taren: Tell me about a little bit at NIH and I find it very fascinating too when you’re bringing it to life in such a different way than I’ve heard it described before. Tell me about your time at the NIH.
Dr. Parnes: I worked in a very small lab but that was part of a larger one. The head of the lab that I worked in was somebody I had actually known in college. We took a course together but when I went to medical school, he went to graduate school and got a PhD. While I was a resident, he was a post doc. And then when I wanted to do a post doc there, he was just starting out his lab. But we were in a larger molecular genetics lab run by somebody named Phil Leder, who soon thereafter became head of genetics at Harvard Medical School and my mentor, John Simon, went along with him. But at the time they went up there, I went to Stanford for my job.
I worked unbelievably hard. I had great mentorship, great colleagues surround me. I was working on a problem to clone the cDNA in gene for a protein called beta 2 microglobulin which is the smaller and non-diverse chain of what we call major histocompatibility complex antigens or type 1 antigens or transplantation antigens, they’re called.
The project was very successful and as a result of that, I got my job at Stanford. I learned an amazing amount and was very stimulated to continue working in that type of a field, of course, on new projects.
Taren: That’s wonderful. How long were you at Stanford before you made the leap to Amgen?
Dr. Parnes: Twenty-four years, I believe – a long time.
Taren: Wow. That is a long time. Tell me, in 2006, you did decide to leave academia and you joined the industry. What was the impetus for this career transformation?
Dr. Parnes: It was complete serendipity. I had no plans to leave. I was a tenured full professor. I could stay there and continue doing what I was doing. I didn’t much like writing grants, nobody did but anyway, I had no reason to leave. I happened to get a phone call from a recruiter about a job at Amgen in early development, and most of the time when I had received calls or emails about jobs in the industry, they were not at all of interest to me, either because of the particular companies involved or the nature of the work. I had not done any clinical research. My research was all very basic although the field of immunology is obvious very applicable to human disease.
I hadn’t had any interest in doing clinical research beforehand but I like the idea from this phone call of doing the translational type of work that was part of this job and that was bringing new therapeutic candidates into people for the first time and trying to understand how they would work. I thought it was worth learning more.
I came for a couple of interviews, talked to a lot of people. I knew some people who were at Amgen already and I decided to take the leap but to be completely honest about it, because I was not entirely certain, I was able to take a leave of absence from Stanford, so I could have gone back. But I’m still there.
Taren: That’s funny. Yeah, you’re still there since 2006. That was such an exciting time I would imagine to be at Amgen right before the biotech boom, right. What were those early days like for you?
Dr. Parnes: It was an amazing experience because it was new to me. Everything about it was new. I was doing things that I had never done before. Thinking about problems I had never thought about before. I found it incredibly energizing. Academia is wonderful in its own right but after a while, you’re doing very similar types of things over time.
All of a sudden I was in a totally different environment, needing completely different sets of people and learning about things that I knew nothing about at all. A little scary perhaps, it took about six months for the fog to lift and to really be able to place everything and understand some of the processes a lot more. But to do that at that stage of my career was really fun and exciting.
Taren: It’s amazing. You’ve been there all this time. What is it about this Amgen culture that has kept you with the company because at this point, many people would have already been on there fourth company?
Dr. Parnes: Yeah, I guess I’m not the sort of person who likes to move around a lot as long as I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I think Amgen in many respects has an academic type of environment for a company although it is obviously grown over time and is fairly large. But we are very science based which is something that is clearly important to me.
We have a set of values at Amgen, the Amgen values that you learn when you first start out and they include things such as trust and respect each other and be ethical, be science based and those are the sorts of values that I’ve always tried to apply to everything that I do.
I like the culture that Amgen was creating and had created. I have always very much appreciated the incredibly smart and talented people that I’ve had the opportunity to work with there. You learn pretty quickly that there’s no way you’re going to learn and understand everything about the molecules you’re trying to take forward into people. Nor are you able to learn everything about the commercial and manufacturing aspects of it. There’s just so much. It’s a very multi-functional environment, and we work in teams, and that’s a fantastic opportunity to learn from others enough so that you understand what’s important but you don’t have to know all of the details of everything because you’ve got such incredible colleagues who can help you there.
Taren: Fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. Jane, can we get into what it means to translate that pre-clinical science into clinical studies. You touched on it just a little bit ago and what it means for real life patients.
Dr. Parnes: The research that is done, discovery research to come up with potential targets is the first part of the process of drug development. You need to decide what are you going to inhibit or stimulate in order to potentially have an effect on a disease process. But once you’ve established that and developed a candidate molecule that you think will affect that pathway that is involved in disease, before you can just go into large scale clinical trials with it, you have to decide whether or not it’s even safe enough to put into people at all.
We need to understand how you’re going to measure the effects of that therapeutic candidate before you are giving it to people with the disease. Maybe you’re giving it to somebody with the disease one at a time in something like oncology, for example, but in some cases you’re going to go into healthy people.
You need to have a plan for how much of a drug candidate to give if you even can believe it’s safe enough to do so, how you’re going to measure what it’s doing and whether what it’s doing in people is what you would predict and what will be necessary in order to have a clinical impact on a disease.
Translational work is that part of the process by which you take a candidate that’s not yet been in people decide how you’re going to bring it forward, whether you’re going to bring it forward into the earliest clinical trials since small numbers of either healthy subjects or patients and slowly increase doses, measure the effects, make sure it’s safe enough and acquire the knowledge that is going to enable you to make the wise decision as to whether you’re going to invest in large scale clinical trials where you’re going to give this therapeutic candidate to many hundreds of people over time and look for an effect in disease.
Taren: Wonderful. As you noted, you’re the Executive Medical Director of Early Development. How many candidates could you guestimate that you have evaluated over your career?
Dr. Parnes: Oh my. Well, those that are either I touched on or that have been under me, I don’t know, maybe about 30 or so, not sure. I’d have to go back and count. I haven’t done that but many, and most fail but some push on.
Taren: That’s quite a significant number because even in early development they have to go through such a rigorous process to even get to that stage where you would evaluate them. You touched on this a little bit too earlier; are they safe for folks, are they going to be put into – when you have to put them into healthy people? When you’re evaluating an early drug candidate, what are those things that you’re looking for?
Dr. Parnes: We first look at the biology based on what our research colleagues have studied and we review that package and the pharmacology of the drug candidate, looking at what it is actually doing, what it’s doing in animal models or in a test tube, cell culture. And then we look at the results of the toxicology studies to see whether or not mice or rats, when they are given this candidate, whether or not there are any toxic effects of the drug candidate. We have a whole toxicology analysis of any candidate. You look at all of that and you try to understand from that and the pre-clinical work, how much drug you’re going to have to give to people, how it’s going to be processed in the human body – so both what the drug does to the person and what the person does to the drug to understand what you’re going to expect.
When you go into people, you need to know how much to give, how often to give it and what to look at in terms of potential safety findings. We always have to look at risk and benefit. For some diseases that are going to perhaps, have a fatal outcome in short order, you’re willing to accept a little bit more risk in terms of safety issues than for something that is meant for a chronic disease where somebody is going to be taking the medication for the next 20 or 30 years. There are different thresholds for the safety profile based on the disease, the population you’re going into, and the expected benefit. It’s all a matter of benefits and risks.
You also have to make sure that you’re going to be approved to go into people by the FDA or other regulatory authorities. Because this is a very highly regulated industry as it should be, we want to make sure we are doing things appropriately. Anytime you’re going to go into people for the first time, in the US, we have an investigational new drug application, an I&D which needs to be approved by the FDA in order to enable you to start the trial since one of the major components of that need to be available for submission to them and you may get back a lot of questions.
You also have to deal with ethics committees that all of the sites which you’re going to do the trial and then have sites at which you’re going to do it. There’s a lot involved in even going into people for the first time, but it’s very exciting when you do get there.
But many of the candidates that I’ve been involved with at one point or another, they don’t even to make it that far; you decide somewhere along the way it’s not worth it or it’s not safe enough or something else comes along that is more exciting for the same indication.
You have to be willing to accept that not everything you work on is going to even make it into people, much less get into the late stage trials.
Taren: Jane, you just talked about not having all drugs get to even in patient or even into the clinic but you have been involved with a very successful project at Amgen. That’s the newly approved Tezspire for severe asthma. Can you share with me the rewards of taking a molecule through to market? How exciting!
Dr. Parnes: I’d say it’s really a career achievement type of experience because, as we discussed, most things don’t make it that far. And those that do often you’re only involved for a portion of the development time. In clinical development, people may work only in the early phase or in the late phase. Sometimes you come into a project very late and so you’re there when it gets approved but you haven’t been there for any of the earlier trials. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to be there with Tezspire from the time we first formed a product team for this molecule at Amgen, all the way through to getting approval.
I will say we partnered with AstraZeneca along the way, and so this was a great partnership achievement for the two, and truly exciting because it enabled me to see all of the work put in over many years by many, many people has led to something that hopefully will make a difference in the lives of many patients who are suffering from severe asthma.
Taren: That’s really exciting. Well, congratulations to you and all the teams involved in bringing this great medicine to the market. We were talking earlier about the early stages of the drug development process. Have you gotten involved at all with AI modeling at this point? Is that something that’s on your radar? Are you all getting involved with that in terms of determining what’s – if the drug is a good drug, if it’s not a good drug?
Dr. Parnes: I have not personally been involved in any direct way although I’ve been involved in evaluating some external opportunities that Amgen has looked at along the way. I know our research groups spent some time collaborating on some AI modeling but that’s something that is not within my scope, but it is a very exciting opportunity.
Taren: Thank you. I appreciate your candor there. Can you describe what’s a typical day for you? It sounds like you have a lot of folks reporting in to you. You’re in charge of a lot of different departments. Do you have a typical day?
Dr. Parnes: I think one of the fun things is that they’re all kind of different. I have a lot of meetings that I go to. I remember when I was first interviewing for a job in industry that I didn’t take and the person answered the question about how do you spend your day as ‘well, I have meetings most of the day’ and my response was ‘well, when do you get your work done if you’re at meetings all day.’
What I’ve learned along the way is that a lot of the work that we do occurs at meetings where one reviews all of the pros and cons of various approaches to whatever you’re talking about and comes to some agreement as to how one should proceed, whether one should proceed, what one is going to do.
So there are a lot of meetings. The meetings are of all different types. Some of them are hearing research presentations about potentially exciting new drug candidates that are coming along the pipeline. Some are individual meetings with my reports. I have people reporting into me in our clinical immunology group, as well as early development leaders for our early programs. Some of the meetings are individual meetings with my manager or level manager. Some of the meetings might be with our business development group who bring interesting opportunities from the business perspective to us to consider and evaluate.
So they’re all different, and each day is different because of that. And then, I usually try to block off some time to do the work that can’t be done at a meeting that you need to do on your own, reviewing slides, reviewing papers, that sort of thing, and just catching up on literature as well.
Taren: It sounds like it’s really fascinating because you get to cover so much territory and as you said everyday is different. That’s very exciting. Let’s go into a little bit of your leadership, if you don’t mind. I understand you are a dedicated leader in STEM. So why is this so important to you?
Dr. Parnes: I think the STEM fields are incredibly exciting because first of all, they are very diverse and they can contribute to human experience in so many ways. When you think about how technology can make life easier, how medicine can make people healthier or preserve health, how engineering can do all sorts of things that are from genetic engineering all the way through to transportation and space and beyond, science can help with understanding and preserving the environment, food supply. There is so much to do, to learn and to contribute in those fields that, to me, is incredibly rewarding for anybody who has any kind of event in those directions.
Taren: Do you mentor women in the organization or outside the organization and help them in this pursuit?
Dr. Parnes: I certainly mentor a number of women at Amgen. Some outside of my own group and most of my group is actually women, it’s probably 2:1, maybe almost 3:1 ratio of women to men. I’ve always done that in terms of trying to make sure they understand the career path options available to them, how to do the best job that they can at their current job and where they want to go in the future. But I’ve mentored women all along and certainly when I was at Stanford, I had many people that I mentored, both in my lab, medical interns and residents, medical students, even Stanford undergrads. I’ve done a lot of that during my career.
Taren: Well, that’s fantastic. It’s so needed because when we talk to researchers or those at the bench, there’s not a lot of role models out there for them to emulate and you certainly are one of them. What does that mantle of responsibility feel like for you? Or do you feel the responsibility in being a role model?
Dr. Parnes: I feel a responsibility to others, to be a good role model because I feel that it’s important for women to see that it’s possible to succeed. I think one reason many women drop out of science fields or medicine is because it seems to be heard to achieve the balance between having a family, having a career, the amount of work that’s required for the career.
I think that’s changed enormously over time, and it has become much easier than it had been because there are so many more women who have succeeded but certainly back in my day, it was very tough to find any role models at all and I think the women in my medical school class and in my residency group were all supporting each other and didn’t have that many who were in the years above us to look up to and to get advice from.
I think it’s an important responsibility to continue to encourage that.
Taren: There’s a saying that you can have it all. Is it really possible to have it all? How do you define what that success looks like? Do you feel like you’ve got it all?
Dr. Parnes: I think it is a matter of definition and expectation, and perhaps, some of having it all doesn’t mean you have it all, all at once. You can have different times in your career where you’re putting more emphasis on one thing or another, more time that you’re spending on family, more time on whatever type of career you have but I think each individual needs to find their own balance as to what is going to feel comfortable for them, satisfy them.
You need to surround yourself by people who understand what it is you are doing and want to do even if you are a woman who wants a successful career and family, that’s wonderful and it’s certainly possible but you don’t want to marry somebody who is going to expect that you are there every day when they come home from work with dinner on the table because it doesn’t work that way.
Taren: Choose wisely, right, as you’re making all those choices along the way.
Dr. Parnes: Choose wisely, absolutely.
Taren: What is the best piece of leadership advice you ever received?
Dr. Parnes: That’s an interesting question because I would say that I didn’t get much leadership advice throughout my medical training and research career. People were just left to fend for themselves and figure out for themselves. Amgen pays a lot more attention to providing people with leadership advice and opportunities to get that advice.
I would say that perhaps the best I’ve received along the way is not to be afraid to challenge yourself and to make sure you’re doing something that stimulates you, that you’re excited about and make sure you are always seeking other opinions, asking questions, and listening to others because that’s the only way you really learn whether you are leading well.
Taren: I like that leading well. What is the key piece of advice you provide to others? is there something in particular that you go to?
Dr. Parnes: Different things for different people but I think one of the important things is to make sure you’re happy at what you’re doing and maintain flexibility because things in industry change all the time. We’ve already discussed that sometimes programs are canceled before they get very far.
Sometimes they’re canceled after a lot of time and effort has been put into them because something suggests that it’s not going to become a successful drug. You have to be prepared for things to change and to change rapidly sometimes. If you have a difficult time with that, it’s going to be difficult to handle.
You need to be adaptable and flexible in how you view your work. Always ask questions, don’t be afraid to ask. Don’t be afraid to express your opinion and certainly, as a leader, you’re going to want to ask for diverse opinions. Building diverse teams is a critical feature of what we do in Amgen. That gives the opportunity to hear different opinions and listen to what people are saying.
Taren: Along that track, obviously, the table stakes are that you need to be smart, you need to have the skills and the expertise. But what are those traits, those nuances that you look for in people when you’re building your high performing teams?
Dr. Parnes: Certainly, I have always wanted people who are scientifically accomplished, if at all possible. Because of the nature of what I do, understanding science is critical. I’ve done a lot of hiring of people out of academia because I know they understand the research aspect, the science and certainly, my early development leads understand medicine because they’re all MDs. Clinical immunology, they need to understand immunology and the immune system and what it is we do. People have to be scientifically literate and curious and not afraid to express their opinions based on science, not afraid to ask questions and I think those are the key features.
Certainly, you want people who are willing to be able to get along with others on the team and work together with them. Egos need to be checked at the door often so that you can work well with others.
Taren: Fair enough. Thank you. That’s wonderful insights there. Now, our time is sadly coming to a close. I’d like to ask you to identify that WoW moment that either changed the trajectory of your career or that has left a lasting impression on you.
Dr. Parnes: I’d say the major event that changed the trajectory of my career was making a decision to leave a post doc at MIT after a year and move to a lab at NIH. I was in a terrific lab at MIT. I learned a great deal but it was not a project I really wanted to work on, and I received a piece of advice from a scientist down the hall that you have your own money – because I had a fellowship – you can take it wherever you want to go, you should leave and go and do what it is you actually want to do and are passionate about. That’s what I did.
I went to NIH and as we discussed earlier, it was a career making move for me because I did the work that enabled me to get recruited by Stanford and then subsequently by Amgen. That really changed everything for me. Got me out of Boston also, which I didn’t think I’d ever leave.
Taren: That’s so funny. Well, you know, that takes a lot of courage to make that decision. Where did you find that internal fortitude to say you know what, I do have my own money, I can go where I want. Because it could be scary, too. That’s a big decision.
Dr. Parnes: Yeah, it was scary. It’s hard looking back to know where it came from, but I guess I was excited enough about the opportunity that would be afforded me at NIH that I decided that it was worth trying, it was worth giving up where I had lived for 11 years or so and doing something that I knew I would be happier doing. I had no idea how successful it would be but at least I would enjoy it from an intellectual aspect.
Taren: That was quite courageous. Well, I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed our conversation. Thank you so much for sharing so many of your insights about what it takes to be a good scientist, to be a compassionate researcher and to be a teacher because all those three things, you still are. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.
Dr. Parnes: Always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for having me.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes, visit PharmaVoice.com.