Chen to head biology for program aiming to produce preclinical candidates
Jeanan Yasiri Moe
Director of Strategic Communications
[email protected] | (608) 960-9892
MADISON, Wis. – WARF Therapeutics, the multimillion-dollar initiative to advance UW-born biological discoveries into active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) and on to market, has a new Head of Biology. Hongmin Chen, recently of Merck Research Laboratories in Boston, will direct small molecule drug discovery from the early stages of target validation to the cusp of the clinic, utilizing WARF’s ‘virtual drug discovery’ model.
“The drug development enterprise at UW-Madison has received a world-class addition in Hongmin Chen,” said Erik Iverson, CEO of WARF. “Her depth of translational experience and leadership qualities will help us drive projects to success and, ultimately, enable WARF Therapeutics to deliver on our mission to advance solutions to patients. Her biological expertise complements the top-notch medicinal chemistry experience of the team.”
Chen brings more than 20 years of industry experience dedicated to drug development of small molecules, biologics and peptides. Her areas of focus have included inflammation and autoimmunity, cancer and immuno-oncology, as well as neurodegenerative diseases.
In her new role, Chen will provide guidance and probe opportunities around the biology of disease and bring expertise to target validation, assay development and pharmacology that is critical to the discovery of preclinical drug candidates. Along with the rest of the WARF Therapeutics team, she will engage with UW-Madison researchers studying diseases as well as researchers developing technologies to treat and/or correct diseases.
“As Head of Biology, Hongmin Chen brings vital knowledge and mechanistic know-how to existing expertise at WARF Therapeutics,” said John Denu, professor of biomolecular chemistry at the School of Medicine and Public Health. “She will be instrumental in guiding the relevant biology of home-grown projects, and in finding the most efficient path towards realization of therapeutic potential.
“She fills an essential need in the drug development process, allowing WARF Therapeutics to now operate with the broad expertise critical for the various stages of drug development. WARF Therapeutics is creating a one-stop shop that endows UW researchers with the ability to translate their work without having to start their own company.”
While principal scientist at Merck, Chen led efforts to build translational disease models that effectively bridged preclinical and clinical development. Her experience includes senior roles at Biogen, Interleuken Genetics and Zycos. Chen earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Vermont and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute where she studied the mechanisms of HIV.
A virtual drug discovery model
Today more than 30 percent of FDA-approved novel new compounds originate in research universities. With the potential for high value returns, universities across the country are investing heavily in drug discovery programs. But championing campus-born innovations through preclinical hurdles requires resources and expertise.
WARF Therapeutic’s team of ‘drug hunters’ is tasked with exactly that – identifying the most commercially promising biological target discoveries on campus, identifying and optimizing small molecule drug candidates, and navigating those assets through the technical stages to make them attractive to development partners.
The program, launched in 2018, utilizes a virtual drug discovery model, meaning much of the technical sifting and winnowing is conducted through contract research organizations.
The model is new but the goal is as old as WARF itself. Since 1925, WARF and UW-Madison have partnered to eradicate rickets, make warfarin one of the most successful blood thinners in history, and bring lifesaving vitamin D therapies to millions of patients.
“Eighty percent of diseases we cannot cure”
As a student in one of China’s most prestigious medical schools, Hongmin Chen recalls an episode that changed her path. A patient, wheelchair-bound, imploring the doctors to remove the tumor that crippled his spinal cord, the doctors refused. The tumor was not malignant they said, and the operation carried the risk of totally paralyzing the man.
“I don’t care,” said the man. “Just take the tumor and do the research so you can learn how to prevent these things from happening.”
“I thought, what am I doing here?” says Chen. “Maybe I should have finished my medical degree but I was young and knew then I wanted to do research. That’s why I came out to the U.S., to do my Ph.D., to do research.”
Her journey would take her to industry and among the titans in the field. She’s had success there, learning that communication and respect are key to leading high stakes projects. But now, she yearns for a new challenge.
“Industry and academia are closely connected,” she says. “You need academia to do innovative research, to find new ideas. But you need industry to turn them into a final product that eventually benefits patients. Academia cannot do it alone and industry cannot do it alone.”
Reflecting on the patient experience is personal to Chen, whose father has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“It’s so painful for the patient and for the family. Every time I think about it, I’m like, this is crazy. You see the tumor cell that is crazily growing, and you feel like you can’t do anything about it.”
Chen says she is eager to engage with faculty and partners across campus, like the Carbone Cancer Center, in a shared quest to answer unmet medical needs.
“A lot still needs to be done,” she says. “I just have to keep doing it.”
The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) helps steward the cycle of research, discovery, commercialization and investment for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Founded in 1925 as an independent, nonprofit foundation, WARF manages more than 2,000 patents and an investment portfolio as it funds university research, obtains patents for campus discoveries and licenses inventions to industry. For more information, visit warf.org.
About WARF Therapeutics
Consistent with its mission to support UW-Madison research and make a global impact, WARF Therapeutics is a major initiative to move new pharmaceuticals closer to market. The program will take select assets and lead them through preclinical development, towards commercialization and the benefit of human lives. More at warf.org/therapeutics.