Advancing New Drug Development

Posted February 26th, 2009 at 9:28 am.

Judith Fox ’78

Forget for a minute the television commercials and magazine advertisements. Dismiss the focus groups and funding worries. Set aside the regulatory issues and compliance concerns. At the heart of the multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry, which has improved the lives of countless people the world over, is science.

Judith A. Fox ’78 is as pure an example of that fact as one can find.

As vice president for product and preclinical development at South San Francisco-based Sunesis Pharmaceuticals, Fox is responsible for developing and executing strategies to bring early clinical candidates to the market. Since joining Sunesis in 2006, she has done most of her work on voreloxin, a promising acute myeloid leukemia and ovarian cancer drug.

Yet while she no longer does bench work, Fox could not—indeed, would not—do her job without the extensive scientific training and experience she has gained over the years.

Integrating Disciplines

“What I really like about what I do is that it allows me to learn and integrate multiple disciplines,” she says. “From science to manufacturing to marketing, those are the folks who sit around the table helping to develop this drug, and that’s pretty exciting. My other hat is being responsible for the translational, preclinical science work, so there’s still a science function that I oversee.”

After earning a bachelor’s in chemistry at Bryn Mawr and a Ph.D. from MIT, doing postdoctoral work at Rockefeller University, and helping to bring drugs through the clinic and several products to market as a researcher at Genentech Inc., Genencor International, and Chiron Corporation, Fox was well positioned to join Sunesis and nudge voreloxin further along the pipeline.

When she came on board, the drug was in Phase 1 and 2 clinical trials, but company scientists were still struggling to develop a workable, data-supported hypothesis for its mechanism. With a fresh set of eyes, Fox pored over volumes of information that had been generated through numerous experiments and concluded that voreloxin works by intercalating DNA and inhibiting the enzyme topoisomerase II, causing insurmountable DNA damage in cancer cells. As a result, those cancer cells no longer divide but instead die. Armed with Fox’s analysis, the scientists redirected their work and filled in the puzzle. Voreloxin is now headed for a pivotal trial later on this year.

“What I helped to do was reset the thinking around the mechanism of action of the drug, and clarify how the drug and our understanding of its mechanism might be applied in the clinic,” Fox says. “It was basically showing the scientists that the trail was really there and needed to be followed.”

Spirit of Inquiry

Fox calls herself “really lucky” for having found a career path that combines her love of science, an affinity for teamwork, and a knack for project leadership. Working in industry, she says, has been “amazing,” for it has given her the chance to apply the fundamental grounding and logic of basic chemistry in the pursuit of significant problem solving. It also gave her the chance to grow as a leader thanks to the training and mentoring that was made available to her, which she tries to pass along to others. The spirit of inquiry that propels all scientific advancement has not dissipated for Fox; she simply applies it now in different ways than she did when she was a lab researcher.

The end result is a series of therapies that have benefitted people suffering from breast and metastatic cancers, allergies, asthma, and psoriasis, to say nothing of those who will be helped if and when voreloxin is approved and prescribed.

“Knowing that I’m working on something that’s going to help people is an inspiration,” Fox says. “At the end of the day, it’s very challenging work and it takes a huge amount of commitment, but knowing that there are people may now have more time or who may even be out there enjoying life and who without our work wouldn’t be here anymore is really satisfying and motivating. You never leave the data or the science behind, and being able to marry all those things together into a career has been great.”

Zen Mind

For all of the hats she now wears, Fox concedes that she occasionally wishes she could once again return to her basic science roots and immerse herself in bench work. But her passion and her results speak for themselves. By synthesizing varied scientific and commercial disciplines into a very effective whole, she has no doubts that the work she does now is exactly what she should be doing.

“Sometimes I miss that kind of Zen mind you get into when you’re doing tissue cultures or running an experiment, because you have to be focused and pay attention, and the rest of the world drops away,” she says. “I miss that, but it is a natural evolution to where I am now. Even from the beginning, once I started at Genentech, it seemed pretty clear that if I were going to make a choice of remaining a bench scientist or trying to move along the line to obtaining a more strategic position, I would gravitate to the latter. So I don’t regret it.”

Neither do the patients whose lives her work has impacted over the years.

Tom Durso writes about science, health care, and business for a variety of publications, including the Philadelphia Business Journal and Family Business magazine.

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