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Coming out of stealth mode last year, Glympse Bio is now primed to accelerate its platform that uses proteins in the blood to diagnose some of the world’s deadliest diseases.
Dr. Tram Tran took on the company’s first chief medical role just about a year ago, drawn in by Glympse’s revolutionary technology. Rather than injecting biosensors into a patient to get a diagnostic reading, Glympse’s technology can accomplish that reading with just a blood draw combined with biosensors. The first target is the liver disease nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), and then the company will focus on oncology — but according to Tran there is no real limit to the disease targets that can be identified.
“We figured out how to take blood from the patient and use biosensors to measure protease activity against disease activity,” Tran says. “Potentially the test could be used across many other disease states. I think that’s the most exciting part, that its not just for one disease, but it could be a fit for multiple diseases.”
Having checked off a number of accomplishments on her academic “mystical” to-do list, Tran was eager to explore new avenues where she could have a wider global impact, first at Gilead and now at Glympse, which offers her the opportunity to “speak a different language” and start a new list.
“That’s the beauty of it — you can make new lists, and your lists should change, and maybe you won’t be the first author, but you’ll be on the author list,” she says. “So you can change your list and you can modify your list; that’s the beauty of a long career where you’re willing to take some risks … and end up doing things that surprise you with how amazing they can be for your development.”
“I’m a life-long learner,” Tran says. “I wanted to be able to do something very different. Going into industry and the life sciences was a career leap that I was willing to make at that point.”
Here, Tran shares her personal story that led to a career in medicine, how she learned to find her voice and how she has found personal and professional satisfaction working in the world of liver disease.
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. Tram Tran, chief medical officer at Glympse Bio.
Taren: Dr. Tran, welcome to the WoW podcast program.
Dr. Tran: Thanks very much for having me. I’m looking forward to a good conversation today.
Taren: Me too. How does being a physician scientist inform your role as chief medical officer at Glympse Bio?
Dr. Tran: I think that being a physician scientist, I think the important part of it for me is being a physician. I practiced for over 20 years and ran a liver transplant program at a hospital here in Los Angeles. I think the physician part of it is really important for informing my role because I think I bring the patient perspective because I took care of patients for so long. I think I bring the physician perspective because I think the clinician is closest to the patient to help us make decisions about things.
So I think being a chief medical officer really allows me to take that information and that background and really bring it to the science and work with our chief scientific officer to kind of meld the two things together — the incredible science that we can do in biotech, along with really what is the most important thing, which is the patient and the physician and how we can best deliver what we need to take care of patients.
Taren: Fantastic. Thank you for that. I understand that you are actually the first chief medical officer of the company. How are you defining this role?
Dr. Tran: I think I’m defining this role in the most pragmatic way possible, because I think sometimes when we are in a world of research or we’re doing a clinical trial or we’re doing studies, we just get very into the details and the weeds of that. So I really want to define the chief medical officer role as sort of bringing that pragmatism again, that patient perspective and not forgetting that’s our guiding light.
So yes, we want to do excellent science, but we got to really have the practical. Because sometimes science is great, but if it doesn’t end up in a practical way affecting the patient, then I’m not really sure that we should go down some paths. So making tough decisions, prioritizing the fastest and best way to get things done for the patient is sometimes just as important as how awesome the science is.
Taren: I think that you raise a very interesting point. Because I think sometimes it’s hard to make those no-go decisions. Sometimes there are molecules, biologics, compounds that are somebody’s scientific baby. How do you translate that information over to the team when you have to maybe make a tough decision?
Dr. Tran: Sometimes it’s about telling the team or having the team understand that sometimes it isn’t never. Sometimes it’s just not right now. Because we do have to prioritize. So their baby, whatever it is that they’re doing in their science project or their research at the time maybe something they really want to carry forward, but we have to really prioritize. So the message may sometimes be it isn’t right now, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t proceed that in the future once we achieve our priorities that we need to accomplish for the next three, six, nine months or whatever the timeframe that we are setting for ourselves.
I think it’s about having the team understand that so there isn’t upfront disappointment about what they want to do, but what we need to do first. I think it really is about that transparency in the world of our science versus our priorities as well.
Taren: Fantastic. Dr. Tran, you actually led me right into my next question. When you’re making those priority decisions, what are some of your short term and then longer term goals for the company?
Dr. Tran: I think we came out of stealth-mode late last year with our science and our technology and really trying – we got it out there at the AASLD meeting, which is one of the big liver meetings. We presented our first public data – and so really it’s about right now the short-term goal is to present in the next several weeks and months our accumulating data on a couple of our studies and getting people to really kind of ask questions and explore our technology and have these conversations. Because I think at those meetings when you’re presenting in the scientific forum with clinicians and with other scientists around the world, those are the kind of collaborations that then lead to I think really great directions for the company and the team to go as we get out there in the real world. I think those are the short-term goals, is to get our data out there, have those conversations, start those collaborations and really understand what the world thinks of our early science.
I think then the long-term goals really are about building a team and building the platform such that we have a long-term plan to be able to get eventually our technology into the patients and into the clinic. It’s sort of right now, explore the science, talk about the science, talk about it in the real world, talk about it with as many people as possible and then build the plan to develop the studies and the projects we need to do to eventually get to the patient. So that’s the long-term plan as I see it.
Taren: Let’s lead into that. Tell me about the science of the company and what your technology is.
Dr. Tran: I think that it came out of an MIT lab of Sagneeta Bhatia and Gabe Kwong. They founded a scientific idea where you take these biosensors and inject them into patients who have NASH or have other diseases. These biosensors are then cleaved by proteases which then lead to diagnosing or staging disease. It’s really about protease activity or protein activity. This technology of these biosensors and being able to determine protease activity was really the key.
Injecting a patient is technically challenging because any time you have to inject a patient, it’s just a lot more challenging. I think then what happened with Glympse was that we figured out how to take blood from the patient and do the same technology where we’re using these biosensors to measure protease activity to measure disease activity. I think that’s really the exciting part is this new technology of measuring protease activity to measure disease activity. That’s not been done very much in this world, so I think we’re looking forward to using this new technology.
That’s kind of what Glympse is working on now is that we’ve worked on that transition from injecting the biosensors to now being able to do it in a simple blood test.
Taren: Will this have applicability beyond your initial therapeutic focus?
Dr. Tran: Yes. That’s kind of the exciting part is that we started out looking at NASH, which is nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, which is fatty liver disease and inflammation and damage to the liver related to fat in the liver and inflammation related to that fat and the metabolic disease that goes along with that. What we have discovered now and we’re going to be presenting that in the next weeks and months at other meetings, is that we also have early data on hepatocellular carcinoma, so cancer-based diagnostic test.
I think that’s really exciting is that we can potentially have this in a disease that’s metabolic and then we can also potentially have this in a disease that’s an oncology platform. So it’s really a potential test that could be used across many other disease states. I think that’s the most exciting part, that it’s not just for one thing, but it could be a fit for multiple diseases.
Taren: That is exciting. Do you see this to be you’ll be partnering them with other companies in order to bring its full realization to bear?
Dr. Tran: I think we would go in any direction that is going to be the easiest and fastest direction to patients. Whether it’s us doing it or partnering with other scientific collaborators or companies, I think we would be open to whatever is going to be the best way to get it to patients. I think the technology, we are really excited about building this out and being much more strong in this foundation of this technology. So any partnership that helps that, why wouldn’t we do that, right?
Taren: Sure. It’s early days yet, right? I would think that it’s very exciting to be at the company. There’s a lot of energy around what you’re doing. Can you share what has been one of your biggest aha moments since taking over the CMO role just about a year ago?
Dr. Tran: There were two. Actually one was before I came, which is that transition from injecting the biosensors to being able to take the blood out and mix the blood with the biosensors. Not having to inject the patient and instead just drawing blood. I think that’s a big aha moment. Because then you can think about how much easier that is for patients and clinicians to be able to do that in the real world. That’s one major aha moment. That’s what sort of led me to Glympse. When that transition happened and I learned about that through the process of deciding to come on a CMO, I really thought that was one of the most exciting things.
Then the second aha moment was what I sort of talked about, which is when we got our hepatocellular carcinoma or liver cancer data, where I said wow, this is not just in one potential disease with NASH or a fatty liver disease, but this is potentially in other diseases as well. While we’re still in very early days with the data, I think having data that shows the potential across more than one disease is clearly super exciting for me and for the company.
Taren: It is super exciting and congratulations. You made a leap to come to Glympse and you left academia. What made you join the life sciences?
Dr. Tran: I think I was in a very great career. I had a great career in academia. When I started my academic career, I had sort of this mystical list. As a young faculty member I said these are the things I want to achieve and it’s all pie in the sky sort of checklist of I want to have a publication in the New England Journal of Medicine. I want to be able to lecture at the big post-graduate course, which is our big meeting every year. I want to be able to do X, Y, Z, have an NIH grant. There were all these lists of mystical things that I had wanted to do when I was a very junior faculty and attending. And luckily through great mentorship and collaborations and just the luck of my career, I really feel like I was able to do a lot of those things.
As I was reaching that point in my academic career, of course you can continue with that and do those same things, but I really wanted to explore a different career where I could maybe have a wider global impact and just speak a different language. I’m a life-long learner. And so I felt like I wanted to be able to do something very different. I think going into industry and the life sciences was a career leap that I was willing to make at that point. Because some of those mystical things I was able to accomplish, and I was really happy to be able to do that.
Taren: Kudos doing that. Everybody gets to check everything off their list. I’m sure since checking those things off your list has grown since.
Dr. Tran: Yes, and I think that’s the beauty of it, is that you make new lists, and your lists should change and maybe you won’t be the first author, but you’ll be on the author list. So you can change your list and you can modify your list, but I think that’s the beauty of a long career where you’re willing to take some risks because I think when you’re able to do that and do that, you’ll end up with things that surprise you how amazing they can be for your development.
Taren: I understand you still teach. So between your busy job and getting Glympse going and going to meetings and attending all the symposia and then teaching, how do you balance everything?
Dr. Tran: I think for me that was a criteria that was really important for me in any job I took. As I left academia and left full time clinical practice I said that’s something that I won’t give up. Because teaching I think keeps you really grounded to the world of young academics and teaching them and passing your knowledge onto the next generation. It was really important to me to continue that. I felt like that that was just a part of my fulfilling of my career and continues to be. That was just something that I said in any job I took outside of academia, I said I really want to be able to have some flexibility in being able to still do that at some point.
Luckily Glympse and other companies I’ve been with have been very accommodating to say absolutely, we think that that’s important for you to still see patients and teach. So I’m able to teach through UCLA and have my interactions with the fellows, which I find highly rewarding. I hope my teaching can help them as well in their career choices and mentoring of young clinicians and young academics as well.
Taren: I love the fact that you’re giving back and that you touched on mentoring. It’s so important I think in our industry, especially for women to put themselves forward as role models.
Dr. Tran: I think that you’re lucky if you can have as many role models and mentors from different places and different careers and different stages in their careers. The more mentors you can connect with, I think the more valuable your career paths- You get the value out of it I think, absolutely. So if there’s anything that I can impart on anybody, even if it's just a short period of time or a passing interaction, I think that that is super meaningful for me.
Taren: That’s fantastic. Where did your love of science and medicine stem from? Was this always your passion?
Dr Tran: It’s actually kind of a personal story because I actually spent most of my career as the head of liver transplant, medical director of liver transplant. It was because my father underwent a liver transplant when I was in college. I thought I was going to be a lawyer. I was in college and then he unfortunately had an illness that required a liver transplant. It was hepatitis B, which many Asians are affected with. From that point on, having experienced that on the patient side as an advocate for my dad, and going through a life changing event like a liver transplant where he went from gravely ill to just full recovery, I think that was such a transformative event for me that I changed my career thoughts and went into medicine.
I was really fortunate to be able to go down the path of doing what I had experienced as a patient on the patient side and ending up doing that as a clinician and taking care of hepatitis B patients and liver patients and transplant patients. And going through actually an era where life sciences and research found medicine that really suppresses hepatitis B virus so that many patients now don’t need liver transplants who have hepatitis B. Again, just the unluckiness leading to luckiness in my choice of career and just a tremendous amount of personal fulfillment for personal reasons. I think that passion for me started out in that personal way but has really led to just an amazingly lucky career.
Taren: Thank you for sharing that very personal story. I’m glad to hear that your dad had a positive outcome. I am amazed by the fact that you were in college, and you assumed that role of patient advocate. I think that there are people in their 50s and 60s who struggle with that responsibility. How did you manage that and how did you know what questions to ask and how to be an advocate for your dad?
Dr. Tran: That’s why I think that’s a really great question. At that time back in 1991, very few places were doing liver transplants. I happened to be a student at UCLA where they had one of the busiest transplant programs and one of the first and best transplant programs in the world. I was here as a college student, and he had to come here to get his transplant. It just happened to be that way. I think you don’t know how to be an advocate until you’re in that position. Even as a college student, you just don’t understand things. You appreciate when a doctor walks in and they can send the message of something simple and tell you things in a simple way to understand.
So that’s why for Glympse in particular when I talk about diagnostics that make things faster and easier for patients, that’s the key. Because if you can explain to a patient and a family member something that you can do with one simple blood test instead of something really complicated that takes a long time, that’s so valuable. Nobody knows how to be an advocate until you’re in it sometimes. Then when you’re in it, you appreciate the simplicity of things and how diagnostics or anything that we can do in the life sciences to improve that will help that patient. I take that to heart from my own experience, that carries through to how I see the company and what we can do.
Taren: I love that you have a positive outlook on that because I think sometimes as patient advocates we’re so frustrated by the inefficiencies. You look at it on the other side. You have a positive attitude in how you want to want to change the world for patients. That is terrific. Through your academic career and now into industry as you noted, been very successful. You’ve had to put together some teams because no one goes alone. What are some of those key attributes you look for when you are building that great team, that high performing team?
Dr. Tran: I think that you look for individuals who are passionate. It doesn’t have to be a personal thing, it just has to be a passion about the mission. They have to be transparent. I think that being honest and open is really key. I think that you have to have a leader, leaders at all levels, everybody can be a leader with the teams, to be servant leaders. I know that’s a term that a lot of people throw around. But I think the reality is that you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and get in there and figure it out. I don’t believe as much in hierarchy. I know medicine is very hierarchical in some ways. But I think that it’s shifting to all team members are valuable. If a great idea comes from a very junior member of the team or an intern or medical student; that’s a good idea, period. I really feel that high performing teams have that flatness across the board where you can take an idea from anyone.
It could be a really great intern who is really smart and just really thinking about something. If you can take that idea from that intern or it could be a very senior person who has been doing it for 30 years. I think that high performing teams tend to have that really open and transparent communication and idea generating. I think those are the teams that I’ve been really fortunate to be on. They seem to be much more agile and really willing to get the work done at all levels.
Taren: You know you touched on a point there about creating this flatness and getting rid of some of that hierarchy and being agile. I think as we come out of COVID, as much as we can say we’re coming out of COVID, it’s really changed the dynamics of the workplace. How did you manage through COVID with your teams? Are you back full time, are you working in a hybrid situation? What are you doing with your workforce?
Dr Tran: I was actually at Gilead before I was at Glympse. We actually had worked with Remdesivir, which is the first medication that was FDA approved for COVID. It was just, while an incredibly stressful time, it was time when just everybody in the world, if you remember, we didn’t know anything about anything. And everybody in the world was just really focused on how we can help the world. We all worked together whether it was in many parts of the company, many different companies working together to try to figure out how we were going to help the world get through this. It’s the same at Glympse. We have been allowed for flexibility with the team. We want people to feel safe. We’ve adhered to safety criteria while letting the lab folks who actually have to be there in the lab be as safe as possible, but get their work done to move forward the science. It really is just kind of, as everyone has experienced, we needed to be very agile and flexible about what we did to keep people as safe as possible. Now luckily I think everyone is hopefully turning the corner with the vaccinations and everything. I think it’s just the agility of being flexible.
Taren: Very good. I think another thing that’s come out of the COVID, is that we’re seeing new leadership skills being developed by executives. One of those that we hear over and over again is this sense of empathy and understanding of what it’s like to be an employee or being part of a team that maybe was considered a softer skill in years gone by. But now is really part of our vernacular as we look at, let’s face it, we’re meeting with people in their homes, in these intimate places with their families, their children, their dogs. It’s a whole different world.
Dr. Tran: And everybody has a different situation in their personal life that you just don’t know. You want to meet people where they are. Some people are going to be much more comfortable being out and doing what they need to be doing, the work in the office. Some people maybe have a family member who is more vulnerable at home and needed to be working from home more often. I think meeting people where they are personally I think was the way to go instead of sort of being too dogmatic about any policies or things like that. I think that that was the key, especially in a small company, but even the big companies. Trying to meet people where they are emotionally and mentally. Mentally, emotionally, physically, everything I think was important to getting through all this.
Taren: Fantastic. I agree. Kudos to all of you who have come out the other side. Throughout your career you’ve been exposed to different types of leaders I’m sure. But what is some of the best leadership advice you’ve ever received? Something that stays with you.
Dr. Tran: I think sometimes as a junior academic or a junior early in your career, you want to say whatever the person that you’re talking to is, you want to just go with the flow, right? Because you don’t want to maybe push back on any ideas. You kind of want to just maybe be a little bit more accommodating to others. I think that somebody once told me that you should say whatever you really think. And if you say it in an informed way and you say it with good intent, then I think that people will come around to, you’ll have a good dialog and conversation. Basically the leadership advice that I really take to is that just be your authentic self. Even if you disagree with something that’s being said, if you’re saying it in a way with good intent and you’re saying it in an informed way, I think that’s the way to really be able to feel like you are doing what you want to do. Instead of going too much with the flow and maybe doing things that may not be right for you. I think that was the best leadership advice I received because I always wanted to be my authentic self and wherever that took me. Luckily it’s been a good way. I think that was important to me to feel like I was always going to be my authentic self.
Taren: That’s a great piece of advice. I think that it’s really great that you learned it so early on in your career. I think especially for women, it takes us a longer time to find our voice, to find our authentic selves and bring that to the table, because it just does.
Dr Tran: I think for women in particular, there’s a lot of pressure; it’s very subtle, unseen, almost not even palpable, but we all feel it in some way very subtlety to just go with the flow. Sometimes that just isn’t right for people, but you just don’t do it. You don’t speak up when you should. So I absolutely agree that maybe for women even more so. For whatever reasons we feel like we can’t speak up or be our authentic selves. Somebody taught me that very early on. It was a very senior person in my field. Because that was the case, I felt very empowered to be able to speak up and say what I really thought. I think that really helped me feel confident in doing so.
Taren: That’s fantastic. When we’re talking about finding your voice and getting that seat at the table, it really does require role models, as we talked about before. There just aren’t that many women sitting in seats of influence still today in the industry. Does this feel like it’s a responsibility to you to kind of pave the path for the next generation?
Dr. Tran: I do feel it’s a responsibility. I’ve been lucky so I should therefore pass my luck onto others. I call it luck, but it really is I’ve been blessed with having mentors or people that I’ve encountered in my career who were willing to help me. It’s not always the first people that you think it’s going to be actually. I think that’s an important lesson. Because sometimes women think, or sometimes people think, oh, everybody I ask for help will help me. That’s not always true. That’s a hard lesson to learn. Is that some people don’t want to help you, or some people can’t help you. So you have to accept that and move on from that and not take that personally and go towards the people who will help you, right?
Taren: Yes, absolutely. We’re talking about finding your seat at the table and asking for help. That’s also very challenging for women because we don’t like to ask for help. We feel it makes us feel vulnerable. And we also wait until we tick off all those boxes on the next job before we go for that job. What’s your advice to women maybe from coming out of science or from the bench who want to have a C-suite career?
Dr. Tran: It’s about that ask. That first ask scene is really hard and you somehow feel like you’re imposing on whoever you’re asking for, whether it’s mentorship or guidance or that extra leg up. I think that you have to really steel yourself to ask because the worse they can say is no. Then you’ll know and you move on. I think it is hard to ask. But people realize once you have that first ask, and maybe it isn’t an ask, maybe it’s just sort of talking about directions. Once they start talking about directions with you, the ask becomes a little bit easier.
Yes, I think getting used to and training yourself to be forward with asking, because I think people who are successful, who do it a lot, find that sometimes you’d be surprised who’s willing to help you. I think it is a tough lesson, though I would say that to have to ask.
Taren: Thank you for that. I thank you for those encouraging words because I do think that the more we hear that it’s okay to ask, that you’re not alone, it makes it feel, it is empowering. People feel like okay, I can do this. So thank you for sharing that.
Early on you shared that wonderful story about your dad and how it really changed your life going from the legal profession to the medical profession. I would imagine that was a wow moment for you. Can you identify another wow moment for us that either changed the trajectory of your career or has left a lasting impression on you? I don’t know if we buried the lead at the beginning here.
Dr. Tran: I think the wow moment for me was being able to be in a field in liver disease where we cured patients. That was the advent of the hepatitis C cure. I had been doing research in hepatitis C for, at that point, 10 or so years with really challenging treatments that were injectable medications that only ended up curing 30 or 40% of patients with really tough side effects. And then when the science led down this path to an oral medication, which is now taking one pill a day, that was able to cure hepatitis C patients and prevent them from needing liver transplants, that was really a wow moment.
Because I think it’s so rarely in medicine does the science lead down to a path of cure, it happens, but it’s so uncommon and rare, that for me to experience that in my career and just tell patient after patient for years on end that they’re cured and they don’t have to worry about this disease anymore after suffering from this disease for many, many years, was a wow moment for me where I said the science can lead to something like this; I need to do something that globally the science could change and impact patients in this way.
So although I love patient care and I still do it, that one on one interaction is a gift. It’s a privilege to be able to walk into a room and have a conversation with a patient every day. It is also a gift to be able to have a career where you can impact something globally like that. I strive to experience that again. Being able to bring something into the world of medicine and science that can really change the patients’ lives substantially. Having that I think has been my “wow” moment in my career and I can only strive to have that again at some other point in my career again.
Taren: Dr. Tran it’s been fascinating talking to you. Thank you so much for giving us really great insights into the advances that are being made in science to address this. Liver is such a hard, liver diseases are so hard to treat. I love the fact that you were part of the cure for this. And it is quite miraculous, as you’re right. Thank you for giving your gifts back to patients about great science. We look forward to seeing what’s ahead for you and for Glympse. Thank you so much for being part of our WoW podcast program.
Dr. Tran: Thank you so much for having me and I look forward to hearing more of your podcasts in the future.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes, visit pharmavoice.com.