Academia and industry have a tricky relationship when it comes to scientific innovation. Insulated from the profit motive, universities can study difficult problems and explore topics without immediate commercial applications. Universities and publicly funded research are, extremely often, where new knowledge first takes shape. Private biotechnology firms, in turn, are often instrumental in taking the fruits of “pure” research and exploring how they can be applied to solve problems, treat illnesses, and more directly improve people’s lives. Private firms’ profit-driven model means that they are not nearly as capable of devoting comparable resources to research with less immediate applications, but at the same time, they often have more total funding available for their endeavors. These differences mean partnerships between the two can truly bear fruit for both parties, leveraging the strengths of one to cover the weaknesses of the other. Dr. Sue Fletcher, Chief Scientific Officer of PYC Therapeutics, is also professor and lecturer at the University of Western Australia and a Senior Principal Research Fellow at Murdoch University. Wearing all these hats has enabled her to enjoy the benefits of both worlds when it comes to designing gene therapies for difficult diseases.
Dr. Fletcher’s life as a bridge between these two worlds solidified when, as an academic, she collaborated with PYC Therapeutics’s predecessor, Phylogica. Fletcher’s lab was working with antisense oligonucleotide gene therapy aimed at the retinal diseases she had spent much of her early career researching. In turn, Phylogica was working on peptides capable of ferrying oligonucleotides into cells for use in gene therapy. Antisense oligonucleotides are effective, non-toxic, stable, and long-lasting but do not enter cells easily, and retinal cells, buried deep in the tissues of the eye, are especially difficult to access. The lack of an easy way to bring these oligonucleotides into cells was a challenge for Fletcher’s research, so a partnership between Fletcher’s lab and Phylogica was natural. Phylogica’s biotech resources made further developing these oligonucleotide gene therapies far easier, and access to Fletcher’s work, and her graduate students, gave Phylogica a ready-made application for their gene vector and people passionate about that application. It was through this collaboration that Fletcher and some of her students decided to take on part-time positions with Phylogica and its successor, while remaining in university settings at the same time, to stay involved in both sides of the project.
Having one foot in academia and the other in the biotech industry has paid off for Dr. Fletcher. Fletcher has aided in the development of additional applications for PYC Therapeutics’s vector proteins. More than that, however, serving as a bridge between the profit-driven world of industry and the public-good-driven world of academia has meant that Fletcher could bring industry resources to bear against rare genetic conditions studied mostly in university settings. Rare diseases, and those prevalent in developing regions, often receive little attention from life science industry firms, but academia tends to take a keen interest in them, and by being part of both, Dr. Fletcher can leverage those strengths as needed.
It takes a sizable commitment to have both of these roles at once, and Dr. Fletcher has this to say to anyone following in her footsteps: “My first advice would be don’t model your work-life balance on me because I don’t think I ever got that quite right.” More pointedly, she also advises, “Question everything, to not ever take the unexpected for granted and, and say to yourself, well, that’s just the way it is. So, question everything, particularly those things that are unexpected, talk to people as much as you can, talk to those around you, have more conversations than sharing emails, you can never read enough.”
To learn more about Dr. Sue Fletcher and her dual life as an academic and industry researcher, have a listen to our podcast episode, in which Dr. Fletcher speaks to us at length about her past work, future hopes, and life at the meeting place of two different worlds.