Lessons learned from building Hopkins Biotech Podcast — based out of Johns Hopkins Medicine — which launched on May 25, 2020 (Memorial Day) in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Biotech has been a passion of mine since long before the Hopkins Biotech Podcast had initially crept into my mind, due in part to its rich and profound history. From 1770 to 2019, the global life expectancy has more than doubled from 24.8 years to 76.8 years as the human race learned how to tame infectious diseases with antibiotics & vaccines, HIV/AIDS with antiretrovirals, cancers with chemotherapies & targeted agents, cardiovascular disease with cholesterol-lowering statins & antihypertensives, and diabetes with insulin replacement. The nascent pharmaceutical industry expanded rapidly in the 20th century, built around the idea of deploying synthetic organic chemistry to either (1) optimize the chemical structures of serendipitously discovered, disease-modifying natural products (ex. penicillins) or (2) to reproduce biochemical compounds that had been isolated directly from the human body (ex. epinephrine).
As the central dogma of molecular biology (information transfer from DNA to RNA to protein) became understood in greater detail and synthetic biology tools like PCR & DNA recombination became more efficient & cost effective, Genentech kicked off the start of the biotechnology industry in 1985 by developing the first FDA-approved biologic — a recombinant human growth hormone (HGH) marketed under the brand name Protropin. The first FDA-approved monoclonal antibody (mAb) drugs followed less than a decade later in 1994 with Centocor/Janssen’s abciximab. The refinement of synthetic biology manufacturing, unraveling of the Human Genome in 2003, genomic profiling of human diseases, and rise of CRISPR-based gene editing tools added fuel to the fire. The pace of biomedical innovation rapidly accelerated in the 2010s, as evidenced by the explosion of new therapeutic modalities that garnered first-time FDA-approval:
- First antibody-drug conjugate (ADC) in 2011, Adcetris (Seagen)
- First bispecific antibody in 2014, Blincyto (Amgen)
- First antisense oligonucleotide (ASO) in 2016, Eteplirsen (Sarepta)
- First CAR-T in 2017, Kymriah (Novartis)
- First in vivo gene therapy in 2017, Luxturna (Roche/Spark)
- First RNAi therapy in 2018, Onpattro (Alnylam)
- First mRNA therapy in 2021, Comirnaty (Pfizer/BioNTech) or mRNA-1273 (Moderna) — Note: both have FDA Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) status at the time of writing this but it seems inevitable that they will ultimately gain full FDA approval, given the global rollout of these COVID-19 vaccines.
New modalities continue to spring up and expand our medicinal armamentarium, including in vivo base editors, targeted protein degraders (PROTACs, LYTACs), bispecific T-cell engagers, programmable epigenetic writers/erasers, iPSC-derived adoptive cell therapies (here, here), CAR-M, and more. Altogether, biotech/pharma strikes me as one of the most innovative and impactful applications of science & technology in the modern age. The kicker: it has never been a better time to get involved.
First, Solve a Problem
Where did the idea of a biotech podcast come from? Paradoxically, the motivation to start Hopkins Biotech Podcast did not stem purely from a desire to start a podcast. I was a regular listener of several podcasts, but I had virtually no formal media & entertainment background. Branding? Social media marketing? Website design? These were all foreign to me. Rather, it was driven by a need to solve three key problems that I had noticed or experienced as a PhD student:
- Cultural Omission of the Private Sector: As we mature, we are often shaped by our environment. Many professors as Johns Hopkins wield an impressively commanding knowledge with a cool nonchalance that I find deeply inspiring (and slightly baffling). Labs at Hopkins study exciting subject matter using cutting edge scientific approaches, all while seeking to push the boundaries of medicine. Why wouldn’t a PhD or postdoc also want to be a professor someday? The academic career path is so compelling and it is always front-and-center. In contrast, the private sector is something we just don’t talk about in academia. At the beginning of seminars, professors hurriedly whisk past their “disclosure slides”, a brief glimpse into a world unknown. As such, it is not entirely surprising that many PhD students & postdocs consider the the road to tenure-track professor as their only viable option. In reality, industry careers are so abundant and diverse that many such options would likely accommodate the aspirational lifestyles of most PhDs and postdocs.
- Lack of Visibility into the Biotech Industry: Even for PhD students & postdocs who are actively exploring industry careers, there are limited options to learn about them. What do industry scientists do on a daily basis? What types of roles do industry scientists play? What companies are out there and what do they do? What are the most pressing medical diseases that the biotech industry is trying to alleviate? What are the hot technologies that the biotech industry is closely involved in developing? The answer to these questions are rarely, if ever, addressed in an academic research setting. In fact, these questions may not even become apparent until the time comes to apply for industry jobs and, by then, the time left until graduation may be too sparse to track down satisfying answers.
- Limited Access to In-person Seminars: These wonderful seminars were precious opportunities to learn about the biotech/pharma industry directly from the people working there and, perhaps, even do some of that fabled “networking” that I’d always heard about. However, they typically required PhD students & postdocs to leave the lab for 1–1.5 hours, a luxury that presented itself more rarely than I would have liked. I would often find myself enraptured by the synopsis of an upcoming seminar, only to realize that the time conflicted with a critical experiment, meeting, or deep work session.
A podcast stood out in my mind as being an optimal solution to these problems; a catalog of long-form conversations in a digital medium that allows for “on the go” listening at one’s leisure. What better way to facilitate career discovery than by hearing the personal experiences of industry scientists? What better way to connect to the biotech community than through guests who represent diverse job functions, companies, and personal backgrounds? What better way to improve the accessibility of these interviews than making it available anytime and anywhere you have a mobile device and an internet connection? Through a podcast, I could transmit my passion for biotech throughout the Johns Hopkins community at large and, perhaps, inspire a few PhDs & postdocs to contribute to the growth & innovation in the industry. This thought process led me to believe that Hopkins Biotech Podcast was a compelling idea. Now, I just had to go out and build it.
Special thanks to the Office of the Provost at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine for making Hopkins Biotech Podcast possible and to our partners & collaborators at the PDCO, HBN, and the PHutures Office.
About Hopkins Biotech Podcast: Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and SoundCloud. For updates about upcoming guests, follow us on social media at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Browse our full catalogue of episodes at www.hopkinsbiotechpodcast.com/podcasts.