A scientist’s weekend

Written by Chad Cowan

I have just changed careers and am challenged every day at my job. For most of my professional life I was a professor at Harvard University, where I taught undergraduate and graduate students and ran a research lab. Eight years ago, I helped start and then led the research of a new company that sought to harness the newly discovered CRISPR/Cas gene editing system to make medicines.

Fall is in full swing here in New England. It is always hard to let the last days of summer go, but with their passing comes the routine of school and work. I am definitely a man of routine. I wake early (5:30am) and spend the first 30 minutes of the day feeding the dog, catching up on reading and the news and getting my kids out of bed. I exercise, a run or a walk or yoga, anything to get the blood moving. Then it is time for work.

I have just changed careers and am challenged every day at my job. For most of my professional life I was a professor at Harvard University, where I taught undergraduate and graduate students and ran a research lab. Eight years ago, I helped start and then led the research of a new company that sought to harness the newly discovered CRISPR/Cas gene editing system to make medicines. We did the early pre-clinical work to build medicines for CRISPR Therapeutics, which now has several medicines in patients. Today, many people with sickle cell disease no longer have any disease symptoms and lead largely normal lives as a result of our first medicine at CRISPR Therapeutics. This forever changed the course of my career and has put me on the path to working on the commercial side of drug discovery, or “biotech” as it is often referred to here in the Boston area. We have combined some of the key discoveries from my academic research lab with several additional advances in the field of stem cell
differentiation to form a new company Clade Therapeutics.

At Clade, our goal is to make cell-based medicines accessible to everyone. The success of CAR-T cell therapies, wherein a patient’s own T cells are modified to express a chimeric-antigen receptor or CAR that targets cancer cells has proven the value of cellular medicines in fighting and in essence curing otherwise lethal cancers. The problem with these therapies is that they are only available at a few very highly specialized research hospitals, and they cost millions of dollars to produce. We aim to change that by differentiating induced pluripotent stem cells into T cells that look and function the same as the T cells taken from patients. Arm these with a CAR, and you now have T cell therapies for everyone with a given cancer. We hope that by changing the scale and consistency with which these cell medicines can be produced we will also change their costs, so that in the long run these medicines become available globally for every patient in need. Day-to-day, I am excited by working with our research team to overcome some of the technical challenges that stand in the way of making our goal into a reality. I enjoy the process of solving hard problems together with some enormously talented scientists. This part of my job is not so different from running an academic research lab. The new challenges for me lie in learning to build and lead an organization that has all of the critical skills and know-how to make new medicines. In particular, I am not a gifted people manager, so learning to listen and understand everyone’s perspective and knit those together into a tapestry of teamwork has been my biggest learning experience. I love learning and I am blessed that my new career has stretched both my academic knowledge and my people skills to their limits.

After work, I love spending time with my family. An important part of our day is dinner all together whenever possible. We sit at our dining room table, light the candles, eat on the fancy china, use the silver, and discuss our days. One of favorite things to do is to have one member of the family read a poem aloud. We keep several volumes of poetry next to the table for just this occasion. We have an eclectic mix of poems, some based on science, some from the acknowledged masters of the art and a few irreverent items such as poems from Cookie Monster and those told from the point of view of family pets. No matter who the author is we usually have a laugh or a thoughtful moment.

As my sons are both young and full of energy, we also have a new family rule that if you leave the table without asking to be excused you have to do a “chicken dance”. We get one of these almost every night and it leaves all of us with a smile on our face.
This weekend we have the regular fall sports for our guys, soccer and tennis and the Annisquam Village Arts and Crafts Fair. The Arts and Crafts fair brings together artists and craftsmen from all over Cape Ann (this is the small island we live on that has the larger cities of Gloucester and Rockport). I volunteered to work the “floor” on Saturday helping people with their purchases and keeping an eye on the merchandise. All of the proceeds will go to benefit the local church and the Annisquam Village Hall Association, which is a community center, library, community theater and gallery open to everyone. So, a packed weekend with fun for all ages.

Written by Chad Cowan