Otago science alumnus Wayne Fairbrother has many career highlights, but says a recent meeting with a man (at left) who was cancer-free after taking a product his team helped develop was “very inspiring”.
Wayne returned from the US in May to receive the 2017 Teschemaker Cup from Timaru Boys’ High School, which he attended between 1976 and 1980.
The school said the award was recognition of Wayne’s international standing as leader of a research department at South San Francisco-based Genentech, a biotechnology company developing drugs to treat human diseases and alleviate chronic conditions.
In 2013 he was awarded the Ralph Schwall Memorial Award for significant cancer research patent holders, and in 2017 his team won the Prix Galien USA Award for best pharmaceutical product for the Venclexta® treatment, which is aimed at helping people diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
He also has inventor status on 16 US and worldwide patents, the majority of which relate to development of new anti-cancer drugs.
How did Otago help to shape your life and career success?
I initially enrolled in the Bachelor of Pharmacy programme at Otago, but almost immediately switched to a Bachelor of Science after realising my true interests lay in research. I got a solid grounding in Chemistry and Biochemistry and was also introduced to nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy during my Part 3 Chemistry Research Project, with Professor David Buckingham. This led me to seek out a PhD programme where I could learn more about NMR, and apply it to biological problems.
Any highlights and interesting memories of your university days?
I fondly remember my time at Knox College and continue to maintain many friendships from there.
I also participated in the Knox Farce (I think in 1981) with the late, great, Jon Gadsby. Unfortunately, our act was cut from the show at the last minute so I can’t say I ever performed with him. And, of course, I spent many an hour “studying” at the Gardens Tavern.
Recollections of favourite or standout lecturers?
I should give a shout out to Professor Bob Smith. He took a special interest in me and convinced me to change my major from Pharmacy to Chemistry after my first year. That really set me on the path to my current career. And Professor David Buckingham, who encouraged me to aim high and gave me my first real taste of what it’s like to be a researcher. Without his encouragement I doubt that I would have applied for the Commonwealth Scholarship that allowed me to graduate with a DPhil from Oxford University, where I used NMR methods to study protein structure and function.
What are some career or personal highlights?
The main career highlight for me is certainly the approval of the Bcl-2 antagonist venetoclax, for the treatment of patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
This was the culmination of a great research collaboration with scientists at Abbott Labs, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, and Genentech.
Meeting patients whose lives have been saved by a drug that I contributed to is especially inspiring.
It was also a personal privilege for me to accept the 2017 Prix Galien USA award for the Best Pharmaceutical Product on behalf of the large team of people responsible for venetoclax.
Future goals? Any new areas you want to take your research into? Or problems you’d like to solve?
My current research is focused on identifying new modalities for “hard to drug” targets. Making therapeutic drugs is extremely difficult and most of the relatively easy targets, the so called low-hanging fruit, have already been “drugged”.
But there are still many unmet medical needs across many disease indications, so if we can find innovative ways to target these diseases we can continue to benefit patients. This is what really gets me up each day and drives my research interests.
The University of Otago is proud of our former students who have gone on to achieve outstanding success in a variety of endeavours.
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