Dr. Ying Tam is the Director of Preclinical Development at Acuitas Therapeutics, a Vancouver-based pharmaceutical company specializing in systemic delivery of nucleic acid therapeutics. Prior to his career in industry, Dr. Tam held a faculty position in the department of Hematology and Oncology at Rush-Presbyterian Medical Centre in Chicago, Illinois. We sat down with Dr. Tam to discuss his journey from principal investigator to industrial scientist.
Why did you initially decide to pursue a career in academia?
Back when I was starting my academic career, the expectation was that following graduate school you would work towards becoming a principal investigator at a university. I think a surprisingly large number of people follow this route without much conscious thought. I was no different. My postdoc was under the supervision of Dr. Hans Klingemann at the Terry Fox Laboratories here in Vancouver. While I was working in his lab, Hans was offered the directorship of the clinical portion of the bone marrow transplant unit at Rush-Presbyterian Medical Centre in Chicago, and he needed someone to run the research program. So he offered me the position. It was virtually unheard of to get a faculty position that early in an academic career, so I took it.
What was your research focus while at the Rush-Presbyterian Medical Centre?
I was interested in immunotherapy, and was looking at ways of enhancing the body’s own immune system by a process known as adoptive cellular immunotherapy. After high dose therapy you can eliminate the vast majority of malignant cells, but most patients will relapse due to minimal residual disease. The basic idea of my research was to transfer immunological cells in conjunction with bone marrow transplant to improve outcomes. One of the main projects I worked on was related to a natural killer cell line that Hans isolated during his time at the BC Cancer agency. It’s one of only two or three human natural killer cell lines that are currently available. These cells are highly cytotoxic and very effective at killing tumor cells. So one of the projects we were working on was the potential of using these cells for adoptive immunotherapy.
Have you always been interested in translational research?
I’ve worked on translational research ever since my postdoc. To be perfectly honest that’s really where my main interests lie. While as a scientist you have to recognize the value and importance of basic research, for me the motivation comes largely from the translation into something that is clinically relevant and that will eventually benefit people.
You spent five years running your own research lab in Chicago. What made you decide to leave your faculty position after investing so much effort in achieving that goal?
Good question. I always thought that I would complete grad school, a postdoc, become a professor, and then everything would be hunky-dory. Unfortunately, the hunky-dory part didn’t entirely occur. I got all the way to having my own research lab, and had the good luck of getting the first two grants I ever wrote in my life, but not the third or fourth. And one day as I sat down to write a grant, I realized that I was going to be writing grants for the rest of my life. Which wasn’t the most compelling or inspiring thought. Plus, although Chicago is an interesting city, we were desperate to return to Vancouver. So in the end, it wasn’t that difficult of a decision when I decided to forego academia completely.
What did you do after leaving your faculty position?
After we decided it was time to relocate, I sent some CVs out to companies here in Vancouver, and got offered a position at Inex Pharmaceuticals. I imagine it sounds quite disparate that I left my position in Chicago, which was related to immunotherapy, and started working at a company focusing on encapsulated drugs, but I was brought onto Inex to head their immunotherapy program. Since then, through a number of intervening years and events, I’ve moved onto Acuitas Therapeutics.
What are your duties as director of preclinical research at Acuitas Therapeutics?
I run the pre-clinical program for Acuitas, which is a company focused on the development of lipid nanoparticle delivery systems for messenger RNA therapeutics. I manage the potency, activity, safety, and in some aspects the efficacy of these types of systems. And one of the things that relates to both activity and safety is the immune stimulatory potential of these delivery systems, since pathogenic nucleic acids have a significant potential to induce an immune response. In order for us to use nucleic acid as a therapeutic, we need to understand and appropriately manage these types of types of effects.
Did you find the transition to industry difficult after being in academia for so long?
No, but my situation was a little different. Normally when you transition from academia to industry you can have less freedom to pursue interests. I started at a fairly senior level when I transitioned, and more or less ran my own program, so I had a good amount of freedom. I also came into the company at a time when it was in good shape, which also allowed me to have more freedom in what I chose to do, including close collaborating with a number of academic groups. Because of those factors, I would say overall the transition was relatively easy.
What advice would you give to other scientists, whether faculty or trainee, when they begin to consider leaving academia after investing so much time in it?
Leaving academia can be hard. You feel like you’re throwing away years of hard work, especially when you’ve made it to the level of professor. My advice is that you can’t be afraid to realize that you’ve come down a path that turned out unlike what you expected. If you refuse to acknowledge it, you’re compounding the problem. You have to be willing to step outside of the expectations you’ve set for yourself, and embrace a different perspective on what those expectations might now be. Even if you figure out something new that you really want to be doing with your life tomorrow, you’ll still have the next twenty-five years to do it. And from my point of view, twenty-five years is a long time to be doing anything. Figuring out what you really want to do isn’t a waste of time, it’s a journey, and you have to be open to trying something different.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Dr. Tam!