Catherine Mackey is excited. She works for Pfizer, a 158-year-old company dedicated to fighting some of the world’s most crippling diseases, like cancer and diabetes. Best of all, she gets to be part of a 1,000-member team of La Jolla scientists who are making significant contributions toward finding medical cures.
“We’re very passionate about what we do,” said Mackey about scientists. “Knowing that what you’re doing has a chance, even if it’s a small chance, of making a huge impact on someone’s life, or on a disease - that keeps people going. It’s a huge responsibility to lead the discovery and development of new medicines. Patients are counting on us.”
Since May 2001, Mackey has been senior vice president of Pfizer Global Research & Development. As director of the firm’s pharmaceutical R&D laboratories operation in La Jolla, she gets to learn something new every day while striving to make medical breakthroughs. It’s fun, she said, but admittedly, also something that requires a lot of patience. “You can’t be discouraged easily,” Mackey said, “intimidated by the magnitude of the problem.”
Founded in 1849, Pfizer Inc. is dedicated to better health and greater access to healthcare for people, helping them live longer, healthier, happier lives. That’s accomplished through discovering and developing breakthrough medicines, providing information on prevention, wellness, and treatment while providing consistent high-quality manufacturing of medicines and consumer products coupled with global leadership in corporate responsibility.
Pfizer in La Jolla has invested $522 million over four years to create a fully integrated R&D campus where Mackey and 1,000 of her colleagues are housed in eight buildings sharing more than 1 million square feet of research and support facilities on 33 1/2 acres. There, the Pfizer community pursues new treatments for not only cancer and diabetes, but diseases of the eye like glaucoma and macular degeneration, as well as combating infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.
In 2006, the FDA approved a new drug developed by Pfizer, Sutent, to treat rare forms of stomach and kidney cancer. Other pharmaceutical compounds for treating breast and colorectal cancer and macular degeneration are in the development pipeline. Another compound developed at Pfizer La Jolla, Axitinib, is going through clinical trials for treating lung, breast, colorectal and pancreatic tumors, plus melanoma.
One of the things Mackey enjoys most about her position as a research scientist is that she gets a chance to cooperate with others as a team, rather than competing separately as individuals. “We’ve got 1,000 very enthusiastic and talented people,” she said, “and also a great environment for collaboration here in San Diego. People in San Diego have figured out we’re much more effective working together than competing with each other.”
A prime examples of cooperation among the biotech community is the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine. Said Mackey: “It’s a great example of the community’s willingness and ability to collaborate for a good purpose.”
Lab work to discover new cures for the world’s most troubling diseases is a marathon, not a sprint, typically taking 10 to 15 years between conception of a new drug, testing, FDA approval and its eventual distribution to disease victims. “You have to be dedicated,” said Mackey, adding patience, too, is a must. “For every compound that makes it through, there are many, many that fail. So scientists have to be determined, dedicated and patient.”
A graduate of Cornell University, Mackey started out in 1983 as a research scientist in plant genetics before eventually transitioning to pharmaceutical R&D. “I spent 16 years in the ag biotech industry,” she said, “then moved to human health eight years ago.”
Mackey said it’s nice to be in one of the hot spots for scientific research worldwide where so many pioneering firms are so concentrated within easy reach of one another. “Depending on what yardstick you use,” she said, “San Diego is either number one, two or three in the world in terms of biomedical research. It’s one of the reasons why we here at Pfizer continue to invest in the site. Because of its location, it’s very unique. One of the things that is our strength is the density, and the fact that we can all work together with the people at UCSD and Burnham and Salk and Scripps. You can all have a meeting, and be back in your office within 10 minutes.”
Mackey’s outside interests include cooking and surfing. She said she and her husband, Bill Carley, who also works for Pfizer, alternate one week at a time doing the cooking at home. “We’ve been doing it for 26 years,” she said, adding their tastes are similar but they each have their specialities.
Surfing is something Mackey always wanted to do and has never regretted becoming a part of since first trying it out on in 2004. “I told myself a few days after my 49th birthday,” she said, “that I wanted to be able to surf before I turned 50. I absolutely love it, try to go three times a week.”
Mackey’s favorite surf hang is in Del Mar along 15th Street. She’s become such an enthusiast, she’s become part of the dawn patrol. “It’s hard getting out of bed at 5:30 in the morning when it’s cold,” she admitted.
Mackey is also active in a number of San Diego community organizations. She is on the board of BIOCOM, a regional biotechnology trade group. She’s also involved with CONNECT, a program that connects local entrepreneurs with resources. Additionally, she’s involved with Project Concern International, a nonprofit health and humanitarian aid organization dedicated to saving lives and building healthy communities around the world. “Project Concern is one of the best-kept secrets in San Diego,” she said. “It is an international aid organization focused on helping communities in the developing world to have clean water and food and healthcare. I’m also on the board of directors of Children’s Hospital.”