Interview with Fiona McLaughlin – Avacta Chief Scientific Officer, Therapeutics

What attracted you to Avacta?

Avacta is entering an exciting stage as a clinical development organisation, and I could see the potential to really shape the pipeline of its therapeutics division as the company enters a new phase.

For the last few years, I had been working as a consultant, which gave me a fantastic network and the flexibility to work with several organisations, from biotech to venture capitalists, and not-for-profit organisations such as Cancer Research UK. After 25 years in drug development, I was keen to move to an oncology-focused biopharmaceutical company where I could use my expertise to drive progress in the field and bring new, innovative drugs to the market.

At Avacta I’m now part of a team that is committed to developing clinically differentiated cancer therapies with the potential to improve dosing regimens, efficacy, and outcomes for patients.

What do you hope to achieve in the CSO role?

My role is to identify and prioritise assets in Avacta’s therapeutic portfolio to drive them towards the clinic. We have built up the translational science team, ensuring we are able to design the most effective clinical studies, as well as expand the pipeline using our pre|CISION™ and Affimer® platform technologies, and increase our interactions with world-class academic labs and industries, to deliver first-in-class therapeutics.

In 2018 my identical twin sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, still in her forties—I have known many people affected by cancer, but no one this close. She was diagnosed with a type of tumour for which there was an existing antibody therapy, though the best result in trials came from the antibody being delivered in combination with chemotherapy. She underwent months of chemotherapy, antibody treatment, surgery, and radiotherapy, and, having witnessed first-hand the side-effects of combined chemotherapeutic drugs, I appreciate now more than ever the need to develop treatments that are better tolerated by patients. Anthracycline was one of the drugs she was given, and I am now working on developing a better tolerated version at Avacta.

The pre|CISION™ and Affimer® platforms are both very exciting, offering the potential to advance treatment options for patients. I hope to continue to work with the team to bring novel, effective cancer therapies to market, particularly addressing areas of high unmet clinical need, such as pancreatic cancer.

Do you have any advice for someone starting a career in research science?

Don’t give up! Early-stage drug development is a long and complex process that comes with many challenges—you need to be able to problem solve constantly, but the experience is invaluable. The more experience you gain, the more you can draw on that to successfully address the problem in hand.