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Drug Discovery

Movers And Shakers

Karen Akinsanya has found success in drug discovery by advocating for patients—and her own ideas

After helping develop therapies for cancer and endocrine diseases, the pharma expert is now working on AI-driven drug discovery

by Makeda Easter, special to C&EN
February 22, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 6

Karen Akinsanya was working her first job in the pharmaceutical industry, at Swiss multinational Ferring Pharmaceuticals, in 1997 when—nearly bursting with an idea—she did something bold. She reached out directly to the head of research and development and shared a white paper outlining her ideas for a new approach to drug discovery.

A photo of Karen Akinsanya.
Credit: Stephanie Mei-Ling
Karen Akinsanya

Karen Akinsanya

Hometown: Surrey, England

Education: BSc, University of London, 1989; PhD, Imperial College London, 1993

Current position: Chief biomedical scientist, Schrödinger

Fun project she’s been working on: Remodeling my kids’ bathroom with them.

Best professional advice she’s received: Don’t underestimate your ability to drive change from any level in an organization.

Her paper, she says, argued that “we should be using genetics and genomics to do drug discovery and figure out what targets to work on.” At the time, drug hunters looked at pharmacology, physiology, biochemistry studies, and academic collaborations to identify potential targets for drug discovery. But Akinsanya’s gamble paid off. She was promoted and moved from Southampton, England, to Ferring’s site in San Diego to run a drug-target discovery group focused on finding new therapies for endocrine diseases.

This experience of speaking up in the name of science for people with diseases wouldn’t be Akinsanya’s last. Rather, it has been a hallmark of her 27-year career.

At Ferring, she later led the team that discovered a family of hormone-blocking drugs that use the body’s own biochemistry to suppress the growth of cancer cells. These drugs include Firmagon, now a US Food and Drug Administration–approved drug used to treat prostate cancer, a disease that disproportionately impacts Black men because of disparities in medical care (Cancer 2020, DOI: 10.1002/cncr.32666).

Akinsanya then spent 12 years at Merck Research Laboratories, including time dosing patients with new medicines. She recalls receiving letters from people who had written their wills and said goodbye to their families before participating in drug trials. “Moments like that, hearing from patients about the enormous impact medicine can have, not just on your quality of life but actually the quantity of life, is just so inspiring and keeps me going,” she says.

In 2018, Akinsanya became the chief biomedical scientist, head of drug discovery, and executive vice president at Schrödinger and took on a new challenge—accelerating drug design through computation.

Moments like that, hearing from patients about the enormous impact medicine can have, not just on your quality of life but actually the quantity of life, is just so inspiring and keeps me going.

Schrödinger’s software, which performs atomic-level modeling of molecular interactions, removes some of the expensive and arduous trial-and-error aspects of drug discovery in the lab.

The company’s software can test billions of drug candidates at once, picking out those with activity against a desired drug target. “We use these computational assays to prioritize and decide which molecules are actually going to have the highest chance of impacting the protein,” Akinsanya says. The goal, she adds, is to deliver life-saving therapies to patients faster.

Akinsanya calls her current role a culmination of what she’s learned throughout her boundary-crossing career, which spans academia, clinical development, and licensing.

The leader of a team of about 85, Akinsanya leverages Schrödinger’s technology to develop new ideas for medicines. The team is working on projects in oncology focused on understanding the genetics of cancer and the fundamentals of how cancer cells behave. It is also exploring immunology, including inflammatory diseases like psoriasis.

Akinsanya is not only an exceptional scientist, according to Schrödinger president and CEO Ramy Farid. She’s also “highly strategic, a really big thinker and a bold thinker,” he says.

Before Akinsanya’s arrival, Schrödinger focused on selling its software and doing collaborative research with pharma and biotech companies. Akinsanya “allowed us to start to work on our own internal, wholly owned drug discovery projects,” which was a factor in the company’s recent initial public offering, Farid adds.

A self-described “sentimental and emotional person,” Akinsanya is driven by helping others, including future scientists.

In the 1990s, she mentored children in London in the hope of challenging the notion of what a scientist looks like. Children often “have this image of the Einstein-type character” when they imagine scientists, Akinsanya says. In 2010, she founded My Tech Learning, an organization dedicated to ensuring that children can experiment with science and technology.

“She’s very committed to helping others understand science but also helping to drive forward the concept that science is all around us,” translational scientist Hamish Wright, a colleague at Schrödinger, says.

Young scientists often turn to Akinsanya for career advice. The mantra she shares is one that has guided her own successful path: speak truth to power.

“When you are sincere and you are bringing ideas to the organization that can make a difference,” Akinsanya says, “it doesn’t matter what level you’re on in the organization.”


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