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Career Spotlight: Scientist, Biomarkers at Alector

Discover how Julie Huang went from wanting to study the largest and farthest things in the universe – galaxies and stars – to studying some of the smallest and closest things to us – bacteria, and her trajectory from being a research scientist to becoming a biomarker scientist at Alector. 

What’s your current position?  How long have you been in this position?  Can you give me a brief overview of what it is you do in your work? 

My name is Julie Huang, and I am a Biomarker Scientist at Alector, a company that is developing novel therapies for neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. I have been in this position for about seven months now.

Biomarker science is a really interesting function in the company because it bridges discovery research with clinical sciences. We’re in the translational sciences space where we take what we learn about the disease from research and translate it to the clinic. I’m focused on the patients enrolled in our clinical trials and seeing how our drug treatment is impacting the disease progression in these patients. My team and I identify specific proteins that are at abnormal levels in patients with the disease compared to healthy people. These proteins serve as biomarkers that make up a disease signature in patients. With this disease signature in mind, we look at whether treatment with our drug alters the levels of these biomarkers in a way that may suggest that our treatment is having an impact on disease progression in these patients. 

How did you find your way to where you are today? 

My career path has been a very non-linear trajectory. I actually started out wanting to study astrophysics and went to college at Caltech to study this, with the goal of one day working for NASA. That was my dream.

What’s great about going to college is you get to explore all these different fields of studies. I had always wanted to be a scientist, so I knew I wanted to stick with science, but when I got to Caltech, I was exposed to the world of geology and microbiology and developed a fascination with microbes. I ended up majoring in Geobiology, a field of study focused on understanding how microorganisms have impacted the Earth’s environment, as well as the evolution of multicellular organisms including humans. I joined a lab where I conducted research to better understand how beneficial microbes help keep people healthy, and this experience solidified my interest in understanding how bacteria can impact human health and disease.

I continued my studies at Stanford School of Medicine, where I received a PhD for my research on how a specific bacterium, H. pylori, makes the human stomach its home and how it may end up causing the development of stomach ulcers and stomach cancer. I had a lot of fun studying the biology of this microbe, but I realized at the end of grad school that I needed to better understand the human immune system to fully appreciate how microbes impact human health.

My desire to gain experience in immunology led me to pursue post-doctoral training at the company Amgen in South San Francisco. In my 3 years with Amgen, I ended up learning a ton about the immune system, not only how the immune system responds to bacteria, but also how the immune system can be leveraged to fight cancer cells.

After Amgen, I had a great opportunity to join Caribou Biosciences as a research scientist. I joined a team where we were focused on developing a microbial therapeutic to be used potentially in cancer indications. I saw this as a great opportunity to couple my microbiology training from grad school with the immunology training from my postdoc to think about how to develop an interesting therapy using bacteria. I had a lot of fun working with my team on developing and executing proof-of-concept studies.

Then I discovered translational sciences, which is the group that bridges research with clinical sciences in drug development, and I learned about a specific area called biomarker sciences. Biomarker sciences focuses on the biology of the specific pathway that the drug targets, and elucidates disease signatures in patients, with the goal of seeing if a drug may have an impact on the disease. I thought biomarker sciences would be a really great place for me to leverage the fundamental biology from discovery research and translate it to clinical studies.

And so that’s really how I ended up meandering from wanting to study the largest and farthest things in the universe – galaxies and stars – to studying some of the smallest and closest things to us – bacteria, and moving from discovery research to biomarker sciences.

With Alector, what I find fascinating is that our company is taking this really interesting approach towards neurodegeneration where the therapies are aimed at altering the immune system in the brain. And so somewhat analogous to what’s been done in cancer where we’re targeting the immune system to fight off cancer, Alector believes that by targeting the immune cells in the brain, we can use the immune cells to halt some of these very devastating neurodegenerative diseases.

What kind of educational training or background is required for someone who wants to become a biomarker scientist?

I think it’s very important to have experience in discovery research because it gives you the perspective of what it takes to start at the very beginning of the drug development process. Discovery research also helps you build that fundamental understanding of important biological processes. What I’ve realized since becoming a biomarker scientist is that while discovery research may focus on a few very specific areas of biology, biomarkers requires understanding a variety of different biological processes that are relevant to a disease. And so you end up being a bit of a generalist, broadly understanding the role of different biological pathways in the disease and how treatment can impact these pathways. I’ve also quickly learned that conducting studies on clinical samples is quite different from studies with cells and animal models. So it’s a constant learning curve and I think being flexible and adapting quickly with a growth mindset is vital for success.

Are there any other skills that you would say are essential to be successful in this role?

Interpersonal skills and communication skills are very important for this role. In biomarkers, it’s definitely a very collaborative experience that requires a lot of these soft skills to be able to manage large and cross-functional teams. Team members are working on very different aspects of the projects, some focused on executing the projects while others are focused on the data analysis and interpretation. This entire process needs to be managed well for success.

A lot of my role is making sure that everyone understands the purpose of what we’re doing so that they remain engaged and understand why it’s important that we conduct these studies. And then at the end of the studies the goal is to make sense of all of the data and put together a coherent story that could be understood by a variety of people. A lot of the soft skills are focused on managing the team and projects, as well as clearly communicating the scientific rationale and goals, so that the team is excited about the work. These soft skills have definitely been something that I’ve greatly appreciated since taking on this role.

How have mentors impacted your professional development? How did you develop those relationships? 

My graduate advisor at Stanford, Manuel Amieva, has definitely been one of the pivotal mentors I’ve had in my scientific career and professional development. He is someone who is always so curious and excited about the science, and his passion for scientific discovery is infectious to all who work with him. He’s a phenomenal science communicator, and one of the most valuable skills I learned from him is how to convey scientific stories in an engaging way to people from all backgrounds. That’s been so important because it’s one thing to be able to do good science, but if no one knows about it, it doesn’t really have that impact.

What are some challenges encountered in the job/industry?   

Probably one of the biggest challenges in my current role is managing the various phases of the biomarker studies for the clinical programs. As a biomarker scientist, one of my main responsibilities is leading the team to successfully execute these biomarker studies and develop a compelling narrative of what the biomarkers are able to tell us about how our drug impacts disease.  

I’m still very much learning how to be that effective leader and being able to manage the teams well and be able to get us from point A to point B at a very rapid pace. For example, I’m working on the disease frontotemporal dementia (FTD). While it’s a rare disease, there are still so many people out there with FTD that don’t have treatment options. If our drug is efficacious, we want to be able to get that to the patients quickly. Everything we’re working towards is on this very urgent timeline, and so being able to work quickly with these large teams requires great coordination and alignment of people.

Where do you see your role/industry/company going in the next ten years?  

For myself, I would love to be involved in the science in some way, while also being able to lead in a position of influence. And so I can see myself working towards a director or VP of research or translational science position in the next 10 years. What that looks like specifically will be interesting to figure out — but regardless of what position I end up having, I want to be sure my role involves communicating science and getting people excited about the science.

I think for the field, there’s just so much that’s changing, and at a rapid pace too due to the technologies that have emerged — things that we couldn’t do quickly 10 years ago, now we can. And I think as we get more and more information, not only about the biology in cells and in animal models, but now, being able to do this with samples from people who actually are experiencing these diseases, we’re learning that there’s a lot of heterogeneity and variability in people. I think we’ve always expected this, but now that we’re able to scientifically probe this heterogeneity, it’s definitely something that we’re all appreciating as we’re trying to develop effective therapies.

This idea of personalized medicine is really going to be critical because everyone is unique. We’re seeing it with COVID, right? Not everyone responds to COVID the same way. There are all these different combination of factors from genetics, to environmental factors, to the actual insult that’s causing the disease that can result in different disease outcomes. And depending on how the disease manifests in an individual we may need to have a different strategy to be able to treat that disease. I think personalized medicine is what we’ll all have to work towards. Companies are already starting to develop personalized therapies, for example in cancer. I’m very hopeful that the industry is working towards this goal of being able to capture these differences, and leverage them to develop effective therapies that really are going to work for individuals at a personalized level.