After successfully working in cancer drug development since the turn of the millennium, Jennifer Low, MD, PhD (BS ’90), made what was a rare career move in 2015: She stepped away.
"It’s important that we move quickly and efficiently, because every day counts, and we want to bring relief to suffering. And pulling all of it together is so incredibly exciting and interesting to me.”
Low refocused on time with family and considered what she could do next to continue making a difference. Answers emerged in 2018 when she heard from Richard Scheller, PhD (PhD ’80), with whom she’d worked at biotechnology company Genentech. He had launched a drug development arm for 23andMe, up until then known as a consumer genetic testing business, and he thought Low might be interested in joining.
The potential to improve human health by drawing insights from a massive trove of genomic data was irresistible. “It was incredibly inspiring,” Low says. “The possibilities were so exciting, I wanted to be part of it.”
Today, Low is the head of therapeutics development at 23andMe, where her team contributes to a pipeline of drug candidates targeting genetic markers associated with disease. More than 11.9 million customers have agreed to participate in research, powering the endeavor with the world’s largest database of its kind, 20-plus times bigger than the largest public DNA database (the UK Biobank, with 500,000 participants). “If we were a telescope looking into the biological universe, we can see 20 times farther,” she says.
As overall momentum grows to personalize health care, millions of genetic profiles let 23andMe view connections between genes and disease with unprecedented resolution. Low notes—important for privacy concerns—that neither her team nor 23andMe’s pharmaceutical industry collaborators can access individual customer records. Rather, they work from reports containing complex DNA analyses pointing the way to potential drug targets. The data imparts speed. Just a little more than six years after the therapeutics division’s start, one 23andMe program has already begun a phase 1 clinical trial in partnership with GlaxoSmithKline, and another program was licensed to Almirall. A third, wholly owned by 23andMe, should begin trials in early 2022.
Low first pursued biomedical research during her days at the Institute, with mentorship from a researcher at the comprehensive cancer center City of Hope. Her Caltech experiences fueled self- belief. “On the one hand, you find your community at Caltech, but on the other hand, everybody seems so intimidatingly smart,” Low says. “It’s invigorating but also scary and humbling. Making it through gave me the confidence and optimism to believe that so much more is possible, and I don’t have to be limited by what others say if I see a different way forward, whether it’s designing a clinical trial or obtaining drug approval.”
After graduating, she earned her MD and PhD at Georgetown University and completed a medical residency at UC Davis. Her drug development career took her to the National Cancer Institute, Genentech, and then to Loxo Oncology, where she was chief medical officer. By her break in 2015, she had shepherded several cancer drugs through clinical trials leading to approval of lifesaving medi- cations at record speed.
That background prepared Low to head up 23andMe’s sophisticated, one-of-a-kind clinical development enterprise—a challenge she relishes.
“I look at clinical trials as suites of individual experiments to answer broader questions about things like a drug’s efficacy, dosing regimen, and side effects,” she says. “It’s important that we move quickly and efficiently, because every day counts, and we want to bring relief to suffering. And pulling all of it together is so incredibly exciting and interesting to me.”
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