“When you’re doing drug development, a lot of your work is going to fail, but that’s just part of the process.” —Alice Walsh, Ph.D., Bristol-Myers Squibb
Breakthroughs almost never happen by chance. Behind every innovation is a long series of steps evolving from initial concept to real-world application. The process typically features major setbacks along the way. To advance innovation, it takes dedicated biopharmaceutical researchers to push through failures and advocate for progress. It takes scientists like Dr. Alice Walsh.
As the head of analytics innovation oncology translational bioinformatics at Bristol-Myers Squibb, Dr. Walsh works in an area of biopharmaceutical research known as translational medicine. She and her team take concepts from statistics, computer programming and machine learning and apply them to drug development. Because she works in an area of science that, by definition, lacks precedent, she encounters failures—a lot.
“I once heard that if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not making anything, and I find that really comforting,” she says. “A lot of what I do in my job fails, but that’s just part of the process. Each time, you just learn from your mistakes and figure out a way to keep going.”
The Driving Force
In addition to taking a holistic approach to science, Dr. Walsh works to incorporate the growing amounts of patient data into her research, which can help arrive at effective solutions faster.
“If we can harness more data from all over the world, we could potentially make better decisions about how we treat patients,” says Dr. Walsh.
For example, people with cancer may benefit from genomic testing, which analyzes a person’s tumor to detect specific genetic abnormalities. In fact, the term “cancer” represents hundreds of different diseases, each with a different cause. As we grow our understanding of tumor biology, biopharmaceutical researchers can develop treatments that target these causes by aligning treatments with specific genetic mutations. The resulting therapies are more personalized and have greater potential to connect the right treatment with the right patient.
Challenges and Looking Ahead
The ability to target treatments would not be possible without data. However, data sets are useless until researchers like Dr. Walsh analyze them and determine how they can be applied to drug development.
“Data can inform so many aspects of medical research,” says Dr. Walsh. “For instance, how could we design new drug combinations? How could we improve clinical trial design? How could we look at each patient as an individual? Data can help us think through these questions and more.”
Looking forward, Dr. Walsh says she is excited for what’s to come, given the transformation of data’s role in biopharmaceutical research is only beginning, which underscores a bright future for medical innovation and, more importantly, patient outcomes.
“Personally, I’m excited about using more data to inform how we study disease and, ultimately, bring new cures to patients more quickly,” she says.
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