By Lara Park, MS
I caught up with Dr. Katya Tsaioun, PhD N’99, at the Apredica offices in Watertown to learn how she carved her path from Friedman to starting a biotech company in the world of drug discovery.
In 2006 you started a company called Apredica. What does Apredica do?
We’re a company that developed a technology to help identify safer medicines in the drug discovery process.
How did you know that you wanted to be a scientist, and how did that draw you to nutrition research?
You know, I don’t think that I ever wanted to be a scientist! I had a weight problem when I was a teenager so I was always trying to figure out how to eat better, which got me interested in nutrition and exercise. When I didn’t get into medical school for political reasons in Russia, I went to Leningrad Technical University for a Masters of Engineering in solid state chemistry. When I first came to the United States in 1989, I worked for a few years in the biotech industry and realized that I would need a PhD to be able to do more interesting work. This is probably when I got interested in being a scientist. It was actually a revelation to me that you could switch your major here in the US. That’s when I started to think about a PhD in nutrition, and I got accepted at Tufts.
Tell me about your doctoral thesis at Friedman.
Initially I worked in the Vitamin K lab with Dr. James Sadowski, where I focused on a recently discovered vitamin-K dependent protein called Gas6. My project was to develop an experiment, specifically an ELISA assay, using antibodies to detect the protein in blood. The goal was to conduct a human trial using this assay to measure Gas6 concentration in humans with aging. After two years I had developed the assay, then tried measuring the protein in plasma. To everyone’s surprise, there was absolutely no Gas6 in any fraction of blood! Nada. Out of desperation, I asked a friend in the neuroscience lab if she could give me her leftover rat brain synaptosome samples. The assay results went through the roof. My thesis advisor left the university part way through my research, but luckily the late Dr. Jim Joseph in the neuroscience lab took over as my advisor. I finished my thesis looking at how this protein changes with aging in the rat brain. My thesis required a lot of independence and perseverance. The project took me down a very interesting path, which is very helpful because life throws these things at you all the time, and not only in the workplace.
Where did you go after you finished your PhD?
Since I serendipitously ended up in the neuroscience field, I decided to do a post-doc in neuroscience at Harvard. While at the Harvard Primate Center, I realized that I wanted to work in industry because things move faster. You see the results of your work contributing to a purpose that is more than just a publication. I was hired by Mitotix/GPC Biotech, (now Aggenix), to develop assays for high throughput screening of cancer drugs to prevent angiogenesis. I had never worked in drug discovery so it was a very steep learning curve. From there, my role transitioned into the new field of absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion, or ADME.
So ADME seems to be a series of tests used to determine what happens to a drug when it enters the body. What is the role of ADME in the drug discovery process?
In the early 2000s, 40% of drugs were failing in late stage clinical trials. With the advent of high throughput screening using ADME assays, it was possible gain lots of information in a predictive fashion so that we could throw out the bad apples earlier, hence coining the term “kill early, kill fast.” Ten years later, that 40% failure rate is down below 7% due to implementation of ADME earlier in the discovery process.
Why do you enjoy working with ADME?
The ADME area is very fascinating to me because it combines many of my skills and interests. You need to understand metabolism, food-drug interactions and drug-drug interactions to best simulate physiology. There are even more interesting technologies being developed now as we grow ADME into ADEMT by including toxicity. There’s a lot of creativity involved because it is not as regulated at this stage of discovery.
How did you develop the idea for your company?
At the end of my stay at a small drug discovery company called Surface Logix, (now Nano Terra), a few of us discussed starting a company. At the time it became clear to me that the industry lacked a contract research organization model that was discovery focused. The drug discovery world needed good communication, fast turn around time and accurate quality data. Many companies would set up ADME assays in-house out of desperation, but ideally would want to send the compounds out and quickly get back reliable ADME data. This option was just not available. That’s when the idea came up to start a company that would be responsive to drug discovery needs, offer efficient professional scientist-to-scientist communication, and deliver quality reliable data.
Academia doesn’t tend to train scientists in business skills. How did you learn the skills required to start your company?
I was lucky; I had a business partner with an MBA and 15+ years of marketing experience, which was extremely important. Doug Bates was instrumental to growing Apredica and developing our business model. I see a lot of companies being discussed by scientists because all scientists have ideas, but whether they actually do it or not is another story. I really recommend getting someone who knows how to start a business, or who has done it before. When we started we had $250,000 from friends and family and that basically allowed us to buy a few pieces of equipment. We had two months’ runway. We would have either blown through $250K to find that the idea would not work, or have made it. We made it work. I met our first clients at networking events in the Cambridge area such as the MIT Enterprise Forum.
What is a typical day like?
There is no typical day! Apredica was recently acquired by a publicly listed UK company called Cyprotex, so my role has significantly changed. Now I’m the director of a public company so there is a lot of reporting that I need to do to the board and investors. In Apredica, I initially used to do everything, from business development to running the assays and writing reports to clients. Now I try to keep myself focused on science, making sure that we are staying on the cutting edge, but off the bleeding edge. We’re constantly evaluating new technologies that have some validation and proof of principle that would be useful for our clients.
What kind of advice do you have for Friedman students who might be interested in exploring industry?
Go to meetings and stop by the booths of companies to engage in scientific discussion. Try to get an internship in a small company because you will learn a lot because everyone wears many hats. It can be exhausting but definitely never boring.
If you were to sum it up, what would you say drives you?
I’ve always been a big picture person. If you see a construction site and ask one construction worker what he is doing, he says “I’m putting this brick on top of that brick,” then another one says “I’m building a cathedral.” I’ve always wanted to know the big picture and understand how to contribute to making things happen faster and better.
Dr. Katya Tsaioun graduated from her PhD at Friedman in 1999.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.
Lara Park is a PhD student in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition program working in nutritional epigenetics with Dr. Sang-Woon Choi. Her thesis work is investigating how genome wide epigenetic patterns change with aging and whether a Western-style diet or calorie restricted diet can modify these patterns. Outside of the science world, Lara dances with Urbanity Dance, a Boston-based contemporary dance company.