In this issue, HCV Next asks five questions of Anita Howe, PhD, scientific leader for hepatitis C at the British Columbia Center for Excellence for HIV/AIDS.
Howe completed her PhD in Medical Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Alberta, Canada. Her main area of focus was nucleoside inhibitors against hepatitis B virus. A fellowship at Harvard Medical School followed. It was here that she contributed to the discovery of small molecule inhibitors of the HCV helicase while working at the Schering-Plough Research Institute, which later became Merck. From there she moved on to Wyeth Research in the role of group leader/director, and later as director of Translational Medicine. Her work at Wyeth yielded advances in a number of molecules from discovery to the clinic along with the creation of a protein biomarker laboratory with mass-spectrometry-based platforms.
Howe joined Tibotec in 2008, where she served as director of Early Development. Prior to joining the BC Center for Excellence, she served as the Hepatitis C Franchise Lead for Basic Research at Merck where her main focus was antiviral resistance for boceprevir, vaniprevir, grazoprevir, elbasvir and other drug candidates.
Who has had the greatest influence on your career?
Lorne Tyrrell, MD, of the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, who was my PhD thesis supervisor; and my mother. They both have one thing in common: dedication and determination. For Lorne, it was his dedication to his patients and students. For my mom, it was her devotion to her children. I have seen them going through hard times, but they remained steadfast to their goals and unswerving from what they set out to do.
What was the defining moment that led to your field?
I remember the first day of graduate school when Dr. Tyrrell asked me to put on a clean lab coat and follow him to see patients at the University of Alberta Hospital. Many of these patients were HIV infected. They were very weak and pale; some were so fragile that they looked like a skeleton lying on a pile of white linens. At the end of the day, Dr. Tyrrell said, “I want you to remember why you are doing your PhD.” This has stuck with me throughout my career.
What advice would you offer a student in medical school today?
Don’t be afraid to try new things, whether it is a new assignment, something that you don’t have any formal training for or even a different career. You will be amazed how much you can achieve. The change will open up a new horizon for you.
Have you ever been fortunate enough to witness or to been part of medical history in the making? If so, please explain.
I considered myself very fortunate to be part of the drug discovery/development teams for many HCV drugs including boceprevir, vaniprevir, elbasvir and grazoprevir. Back in the 90s when we first started the drug discovery program, we only had a partial cDNA clone of HCV which was derived from a patient’s blood sample. It was from this cDNA that we began our entire drug discovery program. Setting up a clinical program for HCV was challenging because we were the first few who put a compound to the clinic. There was no example to follow and no commercial vendors to support resistance evaluations. There were many ups and downs during the development, but hard work seemed to pay off. We now have drugs that have 90% to 95% SVR!
What’s next for you?
To me, the most important thing is how to best use these drugs so that we can cure as many patients as possible and prevent transmission of resistant viruses. I would like to participate in the treatment-as-prevention initiative for hepatitis C.
Howe reports being previously employed by Merck, Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) and Wyeth (now Pfizer).