In July 2017, Josephine Taverna, M.D., had just accepted a position as assistant professor of hematology and oncology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and was about to start a clinical research study on breast cancer. Supported in part by a Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program Mentored Clinical Research Scholar (KL2) award from the university’s Institute for Integration of Medicine and Science, her career as a clinical investigator was right on track.
So she had a moment’s pause when she applied for and was offered an NCATS-Eli Lilly and Company externship. The externship program pairs CTSA Program scholars and trainees with a mentor at the pharmaceutical company, where they are fully embedded in a project team to enhance academic translational science researchers’ skill sets in drug development. It was a great opportunity for Taverna, but it also meant putting her KL2 research on hold and moving her family to Lilly’s headquarters in Indianapolis for six months.
“I just jumped,” Taverna said, recalling her decision. “I have no regrets. It was a phenomenal experience working with and learning from talented researchers across the translational science spectrum at Lilly.”
Now in its third year, the NCATS-Lilly externship program is intended to enhance translational scientists’ skills in areas critical to the drug development process, from clinical trial design and disease modeling to regulatory affairs. For Taverna, there was another moment’s pause when her mentors at Lilly encouraged her to take on a computer modeling project on Alzheimer’s disease, both of which were outside of her formal training.
Over the course of the training, Taverna reviewed published research and worked with her team to develop a computer model simulating how tau, a key protein in the brain, behaves — and misbehaves — in people with Alzheimer’s disease. The technique, called quantitative systems pharmacology (QSP), uses large amounts of data from cell and animal studies and from patients to build a mathematical model of a disease system. Once researchers complete a computer model, they can use it to show the effects of using a drug to target a specific part of the disease system.
The goal is to find an effective therapy for Alzheimer’s disease, a condition for which there has been little progress, despite decades of traditional drug discovery approaches. Taverna presented her work to NCATS leadership and staff in February 2018.
“Working with Dr. Taverna was a great experience,” said Brian Willis, Ph.D., principal research scientist at Lilly. “She quickly came up to speed in the area of research and was able to make a real impact on our project.”
Now, as Taverna returns to her patients and research in San Antonio, she hopes to use QSP to improve clinical trials for cancer. She thinks modeling will be especially useful for identifying which patients are most likely to respond to a given therapy and in supporting researchers’ efforts to predict the best drug dose to start with in early clinical trials. She will need to collaborate with people from many different fields to model complex disease systems.
“My experience at Lilly emboldened me to make the connections I need to drive the science forward,” she said, adding that she is well positioned as a scholar in the CTSA Program to form such a multidisciplinary team.
Taverna believes that seizing the opportunity was the right decision for her career and that it exposed her to new ideas and approaches that she hopes will help get new therapies to her patients faster.
Posted March 2018