Female scientists share their breakthroughs at Salk Institute lecture in La Jolla

A full house of 300 or so (mostly women and mostly over age 30), sat in rapt attention straining to understand the panel of enthusiastic medical scientists who spoke at the “Women Innovators in Human Health: From Bench to Beside” conference July 11 in the Prebys Auditorium of the Salk Institute in La Jolla.

“This lecture series started back in 2012 with just 30 people,” beamed Lisa Cashman, Salk Institute program developer. “We kept at it and now we have over 300 people here today. I’d say that’s quite a success story!”

The host for the event was Rafaele Tordjiman, M.D., Ph.D., founder and chair of WITH (Women Innovating Together in Healthcare). Tordjiman said she was educated in clinical hematology and internal medicine in the hospitals of Paris, France. In 2001, she moved to the United States to take a position with Sofinnova Partners as a special adviser.

“WITH is a network of accomplished women who have talent in industry, medicine, research, charity and finance,” Tordjiman explained. “The organization was established to inspire and support women working in the life sciences so they can reach their full potential and deliver innovative healthcare solutions for the benefit of patients worldwide.”

Carol Gallagher, a doctor of Pharmacology with the venture capital firm of New Enterprise Associates, introduced each of the three lectures that comprised the conference. Gallagher described herself as an entrepreneur, investor and operator with more than 25 years of experience in commercial drug development, working with both large and small pharmaceutical companies.

The first talk of the afternoon, titled “Discover, Innovation and Translation” was given by Michelle Booden, Ph.D., senior director in the Office of Technological Development at Salk. Booden explained the long and winding road of how basic medical research gets transformed into use-able products that are then brought to the market for sale to the public. Booden said the key to successful drug development was, “sell the problem not the product.”

The next speaker was Razelle Kurzrock, M.D., who discussed “Bringing precision medicine to patients.” Kurzrock is the director for the Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy at UC San Diego’s Moores Cancer Center. Kurzrock said that she and her team design personalized strategies for treating patients with cancer. Rather than focusing on just giving patients a specific cancer drug, they try to create the best strategy of intervention using a customized combination of anti-cancer and immune-stimulating medicines.

“We try to develop and test a strategy not a drug,” she said. To achieve this end, her team develops a comprehensive understanding of a patient, including a genetic profile. “We want to move from being drug-centric to being patient-centric,” she explained. “There are 300 different cancer drugs, meaning there are 45,000 possible ways to combine any two of these 300 drugs and 4.5 million possible combinations of any three drugs. My job is to find the best combination.”

Kurzrock says her patient-centered approach is necessary because “every tumor is unique ... every cancer can be thought of as a one-of-a-kind malignant snowflake. Basically, our goal is not so much to kill the cancer with a drug, but rather to get the patient’s own immune system working again so it can fight off the cancer as it is meant to do.”

The final talk of the day was a joint venture involving Sheila Gujrathi, M.D., and Esther Martinborough, Ph.D. They took turns explaining the development of the drug Ozanimod, which is used to treat Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Gujrathi is a physician executive, who worked for the company, Receptos, as its Chief Medical Officer from 2011 to 2015. She is currently an independent board director at Five Prime Therapeutics.

Martinborough, who was educated at the Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich, is the executive director of research at Receptos.

They explained that MS is an autoimmune disorder, in which the body attacks itself. In this case, the immune system attacks the myelin sheath, which covers the nerves. Although there is no cure for MS, the drug Ozanimod reduces the symptoms by up 86 percent and has fewer side effects than its predecessor, a drug called Fingolimod, they said. The doctors also discovered that Ozanimod is helpful in the treatment of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s Disease.

After the presentations all adjourned for a reception with refreshments.

Larry Greenfield, M.D., a retired radiologist who used to work at St. Jude’s Hospital in Los Angeles, and his wife Carol, were in attendance at the conference. They said they started coming to the “Women in Science” series in 2013 and have been so impressed with the researchers that they decided to help support them.

Also at the reception was JoLynn Clark, a registered nurse who works in the Medical Imaging at UC San Diego Health Care. Clark said she frequently attends Salk events because “the talks are always fabulous and have the latest information to help you make the best decisions about your health care. I highly recommend these events.”

Next up in the ‘Women in Science’ series

‘Design and Discovery Fashion Showcase,’ 5:30-8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 4, at the Salk Institute, 10010 North Torrey Pines Road. This promises to be a fun collaboration between Salk researchers and students from the Mesa College Design Program. The students will create and model fashions based on Salk science. Reserve a seat by contacting Betsy Collins at (858) 500-4883 or becollins@salk.edu

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