A quickly growing field like genomics constantly throws up news challenges. But how do you incorporate new technologies? How do you make sure you’re ahead of the game? Simple; set the bar high, trust your team, and go for it, says Brian Dougherty, Translational Genomics Lead at AstraZeneca R&D. You’ll be amazed by what you can achieve.

Brian Dougherty

Brian Dougherty

Drug development has been one of the areas most changed by genomics in the last 15 years. Brian Dougherty went into the industry just at the point when it was looking for people with that sequencing expertise. He’s seen some big changes take place in that time. Today he’s AstraZeneca’s Translational Genomics Lead in Oncology and is overseeing some remarkable projects. We caught up with him at AACR to find out how he got to where he is today, and how to start moving across to the cloud. We also get a preview into the projects he’s currently working on and what he’ll be sharing with the crowd at the Festival of Genomics next month.

FLG: You’ve been involved in and around genomics since the early 90’s. What started you off down that particular path?

BD: It was kind of an offshoot of molecular biology. Back in the 80’s, molecular was the big, hot, marketable field. People were recruiting professors into departments because they were ‘Gene Jockeys’. I got into molecular biology early. Then, all of a sudden, the next marketable thing was genomics. When I went to Ham Smith’s lab for my Postdoc at Hopkins, one thing led to another – he collaborated with Craig Venter while Craig was finishing up the EST sequencing. As that was winding down he had the sequencing infrastructure and algorithms to consider ‘Just Do It’. That was always Craig’s motto, to just sequence the genome – “don’t sit around and wait for ten years for the cost to theoretically come down, just get going with today’s technology and see what happens”. So it was a much more bottom up approach. With Ham we used a bacterium that he had studied for decades, Haemaophilus influenzae,, as a model organism for the human genome and worked out the techniques there. Slowly over time people went through larger and larger model organisms and worked their way up to the human genome.

FLG: That’s a great motto to have. Is that something you’ve taken on yourself in your current role at AZ?

BD: Yes! Many of us have “JDI” written at our desks, though often with an extra letter added to the acronym – reminding us to ‘just get it done’ when we meet up with challenges. So we definitely try to keep that same attitude.

FLG: Going into industry is something that a lot of young scientists are wary of. There’s a certain element of caution knowing you’ll be in a situation where your research is dictated, not so much by scientific curiosity, but business case. Are there ever times when you miss the academic lifestyle?

BD: Yeah, I was told by Professors “It’s so great to stay in academics”, but I’m watching them pulling their hair out trying to write grants. And a lot of time, you still have to deliver to the grant. So there is a level of freedom in academia, but not as much as I would have thought. What I liked about industry, was that it’s a bit more team oriented and you don’t have to do as much writing to get the funding for your research. It’s provided for you, and you discuss what you need to deliver, and then you need to deliver.

I’ve found, personally, that I’ve still had a lot of freedom and resources to still do exciting research and cool science. One of the big trends in pharma R&D, at the moment, is realising that the productivity isn’t what it was in the past, though things are beginning to improve again.

They’re encouraging innovation and writing up blue sky ideas and seeing if we can get funding for them internally. We might not have as many seminars as in a university, but there’s still a lot of creativity, and we are trying to encourage that internally and tap into it.

The downside is that there’s politics everywhere. We sit through a lot of meetings. But there’s a lot of diversity out there beyond academia, from big pharma, smaller pharma, biotechs, not-forprofits, government – each with their different advantages.

You can read the rest of our interview with Brian on page 33 here.


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