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Transitioning Into A Career In Medical Diagnostics

Chemists are discovering engaging jobs that allow them to influence patient health

by Susan J. Ainsworth
July 23, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 30

Credit: Waters
At Waters, most clinical applications chemists focus on developing quantitative and qualitative methods of analysis.
Two people in lab safety gear work on an electronic device near a bright window.
Credit: Waters
At Waters, most clinical applications chemists focus on developing quantitative and qualitative methods of analysis.

Unlike many of the industries that have traditionally hired chemists, the medical diagnostics business is growing strongly right now. Chemists entering the field are finding satisfying jobs that allow them to participate in stimulating science while making a positive impact on human health.

Diagnostics companies are expanding their product offerings, spurred in part by the development of new and more accessible technologies and an increasing emphasis on personalized medicine (see page 10). New offerings include a growing number of in vivo products such as medical imaging devices as well as in vitro products as varied as over-the-counter home kits and highly sophisticated nucleic acid tests on samples of bodily fluids or tissue.

The in vitro market is the larger of the two diagnostics market segments. It alone is valued at roughly $45 billion and is projected to grow at about 5% per year, reaching $50 billion by 2014, according to Jonathan I. Witonsky, a principal analyst in the Life Sciences Group at Mountain View, Calif.-based market research firm Frost & Sullivan.

To support this growth, diagnostics companies are accelerating their hiring of scientists, including chemists, even in a still-anemic economy. These firms are not only employing chemists right out of school but are also recruiting those who can apply experience gained in other industries or fields to their businesses.

“As the diagnostic industry explores new technologies, chemists will be needed for a variety of activities,” including synthesizing small molecules, preparing and characterizing new bioreagents, and developing both new detection technologies and new and more sensitive analytical methods, according to Richard J. Himmelsbach, director of diagnostics research and development for process chemistry at Abbott Laboratories in Abbott Park, Ill. The company, which is a leading health care company as well as a major player in the diagnostics market, is “always looking for good scientists to be part of our organization, and chemists are no exception,” he adds.

Within the diagnostics portion of the business, Abbott chemists “work with other scientists as part of multidisciplinary teams to bring a new test or technology through the research phase,” Himmelsbach says. Analytical chemists develop liquid chromatography/tandem mass spectrometry methods to determine the concentration of targeted analytes; they also develop new methods to test for biologics such as peptides, antibodies, and antigens. Abbott’s organic chemists synthesize and characterize small-molecule conjugates and immunogens, as well as new fluorescent or chemiluminescent labels. Biochemists play a key role in new assay development by contributing expertise in protein-ligand binding interactions.

Chemists can enter the diagnostics field with a wide array of backgrounds. Those profiled here seem to share certain key traits, including adaptability, pragmatism in the face of changing market forces, a knack for picking up multiple skills, and an interest in applied research that can directly benefit patients.

Credit: F. Michael Hudson
Her biology expertise helped Frisz land a job with Thermo Fisher Scientific just after finishing a Ph.D. in chemistry.
A woman in proper laboratory safety attire poses with a micropipette in a laboratory.
Credit: F. Michael Hudson
Her biology expertise helped Frisz land a job with Thermo Fisher Scientific just after finishing a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Jessica Frisz graduated in February from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, with a Ph.D. in chemistry. She was pursuing a job in IBM’s semiconductor business when instrumentation company Thermo Fisher Scientific recruited her; she’d had an on-campus interview with the firm in September 2011. Entering the company’s new Product Development College Program, which identifies promising new graduates, she was immediately placed at its Fremont, Calif., site, which makes diagnostic reagents, supplies, and instruments for use in clinical diagnostics. In her new position, she uses liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry in tandem to help develop methods that will be used to run diagnostic tests to support one of the company’s proprietary new products.

Frisz thinks her graduate school track record of being able to “pick up many other types of new instrumentation quickly” gave her an edge in getting the job.

She also differentiated herself through her expertise in biology, which Frisz developed by participating in the Chemistry Biology Interface Training Program at Illinois, she says. Working with faculty adviser Mary L. Kraft in the university’s chemical engineering department, Frisz focused her doctoral thesis on studying the distribution of lipids in cell membranes using imaging mass spectrometry and scanning electron microscopy, she says. When interviewing for the Thermo Fisher position, she says, “I was able to show that I was not trained solely as a chemist, but also had some experience doing things such as culturing cells and working with whole blood or serum, for example.”

Frisz loves applying her experience in a job that provides more resources and support than she had while conducting research as a graduate student. “Everyone here pulls together,” she says.

Patrick M. Donovan says he “stumbled into the diagnostics field” after losing his job at now-defunct Epix Pharmaceuticals in Lexington, Mass., in 2008. In the midst of a job search, he noticed an online posting for a senior biochemist position in Walpole, Mass., at Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics, an industry giant.

Despite the fact that he is not a biochemist, but rather has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Boston College, Donovan applied for the position because his skills closely matched the job description. The company was actually looking for a synthetic chemist to make chemiluminescent labels to enhance its diagnostic detection technology, but it used the biochemist title to cover positions in many research areas including chemistry and microbiology. He was hired for the position at the end of 2008.

Donovan says he’s not sure what gave him the edge in landing the job, but notes that the compounds he now works with are similar to the kinds of molecules he focused on in graduate school. Another plus, he says, may have been his postdoc experience at contract research organization Organix, as well as his work as an analytical quality control chemist for Armstrong Pharmaceuticals before graduate school.

Donovan is happy in his new field. One satisfying aspect of his job, he says, is that his group works on molecules that can be used in a variety of assays for many tests in many areas. That contrasts with chemistry R&D done in pharma companies, which sometimes is more specialized, such as targeting a particular drug for a specific disease, he explains. “Our research can help a broad patient base of people all over the world, which is very rewarding.”

Credit: Colby Warren/LipoScience
Mercier tests a new assay in LipoScience’s R&D laboratory.
A woman in a lab coat, goggles, and gloves pokes a computer screen in a laboratory.
Credit: Colby Warren/LipoScience
Mercier tests a new assay in LipoScience’s R&D laboratory.

Spurred by a desire to promote human health, Kelly Mercier also redirected her career path from the drug industry to the diagnostics industry. After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, she conducted small-molecule elucidation research at Roche for two years before earning a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. While working at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences as a postdoctoral fellow studying protein structure and function, Mercier says she realized she craved work that was “more concrete and more applied” than what she was doing during her fellowship—and what she was expecting to return to in a major drug company.

Networking with the institute’s former postdoctoral fellows, she connected with her current boss, who had been hired to start a metabolomics group at diagnostics company LipoScience in Raleigh, N.C. That connection—along with her writing abilities, affinity for teamwork, and expertise in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study proteins—helped her land her current position as an NMR applications scientist a year ago. LipoScience develops NMR-based tests to directly measure lipoprotein particles in blood samples to manage patient risk for heart disease and diabetes.

“We take cutting-edge research from the literature and translate that into robust assays,” she says. “I enjoy knowing that my work is going to be clinically relevant.”

Some chemists, however, just leap into the field, as Mark W. Bruns did.

After graduating with a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 1990, Bruns spent the first 12 years of his career in the microelectronics and materials science industries. After the dot-com bust, “I decided I wanted to take my career in a different direction and move into the life sciences field,” says Bruns, who now manages the diagnostics portion of Waters Corp.’s clinical business operations.

To make that transition, he quit his job and spent a year volunteering in the human genetics lab of Päivi Pajukanta at the University of California, Los Angeles, medical school. He aimed to “get some experience and learn a new language.” At the same time, he says, “I talked to people who came through to sell products and instruments to better understand the role of a life science tools company.”

Subsequently, he landed a job at Abbott Diagnostics, where he was responsible for global marketing of its infectious disease business. He was not yet up to speed on the technology and terminology surrounding the business, but he says his chemistry education gave him the foundation and tools to be able to communicate with and manage his team. He was also able to contribute the business skills he had built during his career and bring a fresh perspective, which Abbott found to be attractive, he says.

Bruns moved to his current position at Waters three years ago. Located in Milford, Mass., he directs the development and marketing of products, including those that enable immunosuppressant drug monitoring, metabolism screening, and pain management testing. In this role, he enjoys helping to “bring novel technologies and solutions to satisfy unmet medical needs, improve patient outcomes, and address the economies of health care.”

As the diagnostics field continues to advance, some chemists are transitioning from academic labs into start-up companies. It was during a postdoctoral stint that Mitch André Garcia began to consider such a move. He had completed a Ph.D. in chemistry in 2009 from the University of California, Berkeley, with an emphasis on nuclear and radiochemistry.

When he began to plan his next step, he learned of UCLA’s Scholars in Oncologic Molecular Imaging program, a postdoctoral training program for early-career researchers and physicians who want to develop novel imaging approaches for cancer research. “Although I knew nothing about cancer biology,” Garcia says, “I knew my way around radioisotopes and cyclotrons and thought I could be a positive addition to the program.”

While in the program, Garcia worked with Hsian-Rong Tseng, an associate professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at UCLA’s medical school to develop a nanotechnology device to capture tumor cells circulating in the bloodstream. The quantity of these cells, which are often cited as the cellular agents of cancer metastasis, has been directly correlated to patient survival, Garcia explains. “We felt that the diagnostic device we made could provide a less expensive alternative to other devices currently available to clinicians.”

Eager to commercialize their bench-scale technology, Tseng formed CytoLumina Technologies earlier this year as a UCLA spin-off company, which Garcia has joined as a senior scientist.

Similarly driven by a desire to take technology out of the lab to help cancer patients, Paul T. Henderson helped launch Accelerated Medical Diagnostics. The Davis, Calif., firm is developing a test for resistance to chemotherapeutic drugs based on measurement of a drug bound to DNA in patient samples. The method involves accelerator mass spectrometry, a highly sensitive technique that can separate rare isotopes even at extremely low concentrations, which Henderson used during a six-year stint as a staff scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

LLNL researchers had been using the technique for toxicology studies of radiolabeled drugs when it occurred to them that it could be used in diagnostic applications. “We wondered,” Henderson recalls, “if you administer a microdose of chemotherapy and then take a sample from the tumor, does the level of drug DNA damage in that tumor sample then correlate to how that tumor would respond to the full-dose therapy?”

Henderson, who earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1999, was then recruited to take his research to UC Davis to work with Chong-xian Pan, a clinical oncologist on its faculty. Together they cofounded Accelerated Medical Diagnostics in 2008. They continue to collaborate with the university, as well as with LLNL.


Supported primarily by the National Institutes of Health’s Small Business Innovation Research program grants, the company is currently conducting clinical trials with lung and bladder cancer patients, says Henderson, who also serves as an associate professor at UC Davis Medical Center. “My goal,” he says, “is to take some of this ultrasensitive technology and try to translate it into helping people in the clinic.”

Making a difference in the lives of patients seems to be a common theme among chemists who have moved into the diagnostics field. “I love that I am working to give physicians tools to personalize their medical practice, and thereby having a direct influence on patient care,” says LipoScience’s Mercier. “It’s an empowering feeling and one that I didn’t expect to experience as an analytical chemist.”


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