At Get Science, we’re kicking off a series to introduce Pfizer’s next generation of changemakers. These exceptional young scientists are making an important impact in the pursuit to transform patients' lives. Among them are a former Air Force medic, a one-time epidemiologist, and an oncology researcher working on a cutting-edge oncolytic virus program. Learn more about what drives them and their vision to solve some of the most pressing scientific problems of our time.
From War Zones to the Cancer Lab, Putting Patients First
Nearly every scientist working in drug discovery has at least one patient story. Someone that reminds us the scientific pursuit is about helping to improve people’s lives.
Rachel Vaden’s story begins in a plane, flying in the dark of the night, heading to a military base in Iraq. Vaden, then a flight medic in the U.S. Air Force, served on a team whose job was to evacuate injured soldiers and other patients. Sometimes her plane would be under fire during take-off and landing. But Vaden learned to remain focused on the task at hand.
She recalls one patient with life-threatening injuries, his body barely visible under the multiple machines he was hooked up to, as they airlifted him to a hospital in Germany. “I thought the whole time that we’re going to get him back and do the best we can, but the rest of his life is going to be very different. It’s very humbling and makes you reflective,” says Vaden, who served in a reserve unit for nearly eight years while earning her undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of West Georgia and at the start of her Ph.D. program at the University of Utah.
Today, Vaden has set aside her military uniform for a white lab coat, chasing new biological pathways to fight cancer, as a senior scientist in Pfizer’s Tumor Cell Biology Group, based at their research site in La Jolla, Calif. What keeps her grounded in her day-to-day work is the experience she gained as a flight medic. “Working with patients directly really gave me a sense of empathy and understanding of their needs,” she says. “That translates a lot into cancer research. It’s a huge motivator for me when I’m thinking about patients’ unmet needs and what we can do for them."
“In discovery mode”
Pursuing new cancer targets can be like crossing a vast unchartered sea. “If you actually count up the number of targets that we know, compared to the number of proteins out there, it’s just a thimble full of water in the ocean,” says Vaden. “There’s an entire ocean out there of potential new biology, and we have to be in discovery mode.” There’s an entire ocean out there of potential new biology, and we have to be in discovery mode.
There’s an entire ocean out there of potential new biology, and we have to be in discovery mode.
To traverse this ocean, biologists delve into the large amount of genomic and other molecular data available to characterize cancer. Vaden’s group is currently focused on studying lung cancer, which is among the most heterogenous of cancers, meaning that the disease varies greatly on a cellular and genetic level. “We hope that by using such a diverse profile of lung cancer, we can take lessons from there and apply that to other cancers,” says Vaden.
In the lab, Vaden and colleagues take a group of lung cancer cell lines and treat them with a single drug. They identify the cancer cell lines that respond to the medicine and go back to their data to parse what is the differentiating factor. They look at patterns in gene expression that might explain why certain cell types were sensitive to the medicine and others were resistant, explains Vaden. “We’re looking for a really strong association to explain what we’re observing and potentially find a new pathway to treat cancer,” she says.
Navigating her first year
Vaden has never been afraid to follow her curiosity — even if it ends up in surprising places. She began graduate school in chemistry, working in a lab that synthesized molecules for a breast cancer researcher. Along the way, she became curious about the fate of these drug molecules, so she began spending time helping the cancer researcher. She became so enthralled by the science that she eventually spent more of her time on the biology side of the project. She recalls her mentor at the time jokingly saying: “She’s a lost cause, she’s a cancer biologist at this point.”
While Vaden works mainly in biology today, her chemistry background has helped her navigate her first year at Pfizer, where she’s learned that collaboration is pivotal to making progress on a project. “My chemistry background has really been instrumental in helping to bridge a lot of divides, because cancer research is obviously not in vacuum— you work with a lot of different teams that have different expertise. Being able to communicate with people on their level of expertise has been very pivotal in my career so far.”