Jaclyn Sceneay: Ready to Take Drug Targets from Early Stage to Clinical Trials




April 21, 2022

Dr Jaclyn Sceneay is the newest BioCurate team member and brings a wealth of expertise and experience from across academia and industry. After a number of years in the biotechnology hub of Boston in the United States, Jaclyn has returned to Melbourne to share the insights she has gained along the way and to make an impact in translating new biomedical discoveries.

Having completed her PhD in immuno-oncology at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Jaclyn moved to Boston for her postdoctoral studies. Being immersed in the city, she saw the opportunities in industry- how it opened doors to other prospects and aspects of biotechnology, how it would give her a better understanding of drug discovery, and how it could help her make an impact on clinical practice and the lives of patients.

“Academia often paints industry in a negative light, but you learn so much in industry. You learn about what makes a good drug or drug target outside of just compelling biology, which is knowledge you would rarely be exposed to in academia,” explained Jaclyn.

Moving to Seres Therapeutics and then Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), Jaclyn not only learned about what makes a drug possible but also the many stages a promising candidate could fail. Here, she worked on projects covering a broad range of modalities and therapeutics, from microbiome therapeutics to protein degraders to small molecule inhibitors, while deepening her knowledge of the specificities of each modality and her understanding of key concepts such as pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics.

As part of her role as Principal Scientist at BMS, Jaclyn scanned internal screens, projects from collaborations with academic scientists and the literature for potential drug targets. From there, she wrote proposals as to the viability of the drug target, analysing its biology, chemistry and the competitive landscape for the target. For targets that progressed, then began the experiments. Jaclyn managed a multi-disciplinary team of biologists, chemists, toxicologists, and in vivo pharmacologists to help meet the milestones for proof of concept, hit identification, hit-to-lead, lead nomination, and in vivo studies, after which the project would have been handed to the clinical team ready for Investigational New Drug Application (IND) filing with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Over my time at both Seres and BMS, seeing a promising drug target progress through towards clinical trials, was enormously gratifying,” said Jaclyn. “I’m excited to do the very same thing at BioCurate alongside researchers around Melbourne.”

The ease with which she switched and jumped between projects, Jaclyn credits to her time in academia. Jaclyn commented, “The experience of a PhD and postdoctoral research helped me gain a broader understanding of different types of biology. In industry, especially in a large biotech company, you need to be able to adapt to new projects outside your field of expertise, read the literature, and then digest that information. It was easier and faster when you already had a solid foundation in the biology.” She also believes the soft skills scientists develop in academia are often underappreciated. The postdoctoral experience of being tasked to independently drive research was critical in her professional development, as was the time spent on crafting abstracts, talks and grant proposals. “Writing a proposal for a potential drug target, you have to understand…why should I or anyone else care? Which is certainly a question I had to answer many times to other scientists and grant panels during my time in academia and a skill I took into industry.”

Her best piece of advice for academic scientists is to understand that “just because a target isn’t a good drug candidate, doesn’t mean the research isn’t informative.” Having seen a fair few projects meet an early demise, Jaclyn has learnt the importance of letting go. However, she understands how difficult this may be. “Many academics have built their careers, their livelihoods on one or a handful of genes or proteins, so there can be a strong emotional attachment. But in industry, if a project doesn’t meet a milestone, it gets dropped. There is a high rate of attrition on early drug discovery programs, and this is because the bar is very high to ensure only the projects with the best chance of success make it through.” It is a matter of reframing, Jaclyn believes. “Negative” data is still a part of the data package that forms around a drug target and helps inform future projects of any potential pitfalls, adding to the wealth of information and knowledge that moves the drug discovery process forward.

“And when a project ends, it is only ending now. It’s not necessarily forever. Look at protein degraders which have the potential to target previously “undruggable” targets through a mechanism of action only recently identified. We are only now realising the potential, when it wasn’t possible before. Technology moves swiftly and has made these types of drugs possible. It’s all about being resilient while knowing when to pivot.”