By Tanvi Gahlot, ISW Youth Reporter
When entering high school, it’s as though a question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” is engraved into your mind. Following this question, I decided to interview people in different professional fields. The first of these interviews was with Dr. Sudhir Agrawal, a renowned research scientist, and the founder and president of ARNAY Science LLC. He is also the co-founder of Idera Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, MA. He has also mentored many people in the field of research. He has always had a passion for research, and drug discovery. Dr. Agrawal was awarded the Fellow of Royal Society of Chemistry, UK in 2015. He has over 400 patents world-wide, and out of those, 148 are issued in the US.
Tanvi Gahlot: What would you say sparked an interest in science, for you?
Dr. Sudhir Agrawal: Knowing the unknown! You can start asking those questions. As a researcher it’s always about curiosity, and then by starting to ask the right questions, you see results and data by researching it; and that has been my passion.
Tanvi Gahlot: I noticed that you have an interest in nucleic acids therapeutics. Is there anything specific you like about it?
Dr. Sudhir Agrawal: As you know, drugs are mostly small molecules or antibodies. Nucleic acids are genetic material in our own body. Biological learning progresses from the genes to DNA to RNA and then [finally] to the protein. About 30-35 years ago we started to think, “Can we use nucleic acids as drugs or target drugs to nucleic acid?” We created a platform called Antisense when two DNAs come together to form a duplex. A duplex can be made in the lab, which is a very short piece. This piece will go into the body and bind to only one target and shut its protein production. Although it sounds simple, it took many years to figure it out. There were many parts which we had to first figure out. We had to research what happens in cells, what happens in animals, and what happens in humans. Today there are about a dozen drugs based on this same platform that have been approved. However, the most exciting thing is that with this approach, one can design a drug for a genetic disorder within one year! Once you figure out basic science then you can apply it. This allows a number of patients who have a very rare genetic defect to be treated, since there is no drug for them. This platform can be used to create drugs only for single patients. This allows us to create precision medicine for each person.
Tanvi Gahlot: What advice would you give high schoolers who are interested in having a future career in science, such as yourself?
Dr. Sudhir Agrawal: Follow your passion! Science is a very broad subject. I was a chemist by training. I initially had a passion for chemistry, but as I went from my undergrad to masters degree, I got more interested in organic chemistry. However, when I went into research, I became a nucleic acid chemist and during my postdoctoral research I became a synthetic nucleic acid chemist. That has been my field of research since. But similarly, one could follow your passion in biology, molecular biology, or biochemistry. The field is very broad and it is really about finding and continuing to learn and to work with people who are doing research. When you work with them, you see people doing different types of research in the lab. That’s how you realize “Oh, I’m interested in this subject and not that subject.” Research is very broad. I have worked with people in the lab who had different passions. They enjoyed doing certain things and not others. They were open to learning. So, it is really finding what is your passion.
Tanvi Gahlot: How important do you think it is for a student to have a mentor in whatever field they have selected?
Dr. Sudhir Agrawal: Research is a subject where, as a high schooler, it's important to find summer internships in research labs. It is important to learn early on how research is done. Having a lab where there is a lab chief and different levels of people from juniors, graduates, masters to post doc. You get to learn how this research is done, who's doing what, how they plan their experiments, how they interpret the data, how they discuss the data with the team. Sometimes, at least in an academic environment, research is very focused on certain topics. Whereas in industry, research is a team play where everyone works for the same goal. The environment in academia and industry is different. It's good to find out which subjects you find exciting and then to really look for researchers in that space. Whether it is at a university or at a medical school or other places, approach them and share your interest with them. They will definitely give you a chance.
Tanvi Gahlot: What would you say was the turning point of your career?
Dr. Sudhir Agrawal: I believe that it is a step-by-step process. Initially, when we thought about this approach, we felt it is a good scientific theory to solve. Then when you start doing experiments, start publishing results and start talking about it in conferences, the goal is much bigger than you had initially embarked on. Your goal now is to share this information with others, to enlist them in the same mission, as they follow your work in their own labs. Slowly it becomes a much bigger mission. You started it but now there are many people doing it. It also takes a lot of time. For example, it took 25 years before we started to see the approval of drugs. Overall, it starts with small experiments which build up to the next level, and next level, and so on. That’s why each step of the process is like a turning point.
Tanvi Gahlot: If you were hiring a recent college graduate what are some things you would look for?
Dr. Sudhir Agrwal: A passion for science and an interest in research. Especially in the industry, we look for a team player who is open to learning and assisting. Transparency is especially important! For example, both positive and negative results are important when doing an experiment. Negative results tell us what not to do or what this means. Is it very important to have true data and its interpretation. Having that transparency and honesty is particularly important. Once you have done the experiment and it is published, there is no time to take it back. That’s why it should also be published in a way that whenever it is repeated by anyone - today, tomorrow, or 20 years later - the experiment yields the same data and result as the original. Research has the responsibility to be sure that what we are seeing in our experiments, is true. Repeating them in trials is also important to make sure that the experiment works, because then your data is driving someone else’s research and experiments. Other researchers will use your data and move the science forward. It is important that they trust that data. If you lose that trust, then you lose your credibility with your peers and that’s not good.
Tanvi Gahlot: Right, so scientists build up on each other’s work so if the first step is wrong then it destroys the foundation. You started off as a scientist and always has passion for science then you moved up to higher roles. What are some similarities and differences between being a scientist and then moving onto the business side of drug research?Dr. Sudhir Agrawal: When you get to a point where you are seeing your science has application to creating drugs, then you need to create the infrastructure to do so. Discovering a drug is one part of it. The next step is to test it on animals, smaller animals, larger animals. You now need to hire more people, and this starts to add up and become expensive. Once you find everything is working the way it is supposed to, you can start testing in humans. That is a much bigger exercise. You need people with many different talents. All of them are scientists, but they come from different angles. They take the results from the animal testing and decide what it is going to take if you are to test it in human trials. This adds a much higher risk. To support this risk and expense you need to build the company and pitch to investors. You have to share the story with investors, tell them what we know and what we don't know, what are the risks and the benefits. This changes your role from a scientist to a leader that is bringing the team together.