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“Collaboration is key.” with Danelle James

Collaboration is key. The programs we run are successful because of the value we put on our partnerships with other companies, academic institutions, and our patient communities. When the scientific community comes together, it can rapidly move the needle in transforming patient care. As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM […]

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Collaboration is key. The programs we run are successful because of the value we put on our partnerships with other companies, academic institutions, and our patient communities. When the scientific community comes together, it can rapidly move the needle in transforming patient care.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danelle James, MD, MAS — Head of Clinical Science at Pharmacyclics LLC., an AbbVie Company.

Since joining Pharmacyclics in 2011, now an AbbVie company, Danelle has helped develop and bring to market a treatment that has transformed the way patients with b-cell malignancies are treated today. Today, she runs the global clinical development of the drug, which has helped over 200,000 patients across six disease areas, including chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

Prior, Danelle was a faculty member/clinician in the Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology and Oncology at the University of California San Diego, where she spent nearly ten years focused on b-cell malignancies, specifically CLL and indolent lymphoma, the tumor microenvironment and the clinical-translational development of agents that can be used to target these interactions. Danelle was also a member of the CLL Research Consortium where she co-coordinated the clinical trials program evaluating the combination of novel agents for the treatment of CLL.

Danelle has an MD from Pennsylvania State University and a Master in Advanced Studies of Clinical Research from University of California San Diego (UCSD). She completed her Internal Medicine residency and Hematology/Oncology fellowship at UCSD, was Board Certified/Eligible in Internal Medicine and in Hematology and medical oncology.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was a teenager my grandfather developed small cell lung cancer. I was by his side and witnessed how tolling the chemotherapy and radiation treatment was. It goes to that old adage, ‘The treatment is worse than the disease.’ The treatments we had for cancer at the time were just not good enough. I remember seeing the biggest smile on his face the day his doctor told him he was done with treatment — he had nothing more to offer him. This experience led me to a career in medical research.

During my undergraduate studies in immunology, I became especially fascinated by the science of B cells, the class of immune cells that produce antibodies. That fascination continued through medical school where a mentor, Dr. Thomas Kipps, pointed me in the direction of hematology because so many diseases of the blood arise from an immune system gone awry.

Working in Southern California at UCSD, where I focused on improving outcomes in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients, our team always thought there would be a better treatment option, but were strapped to find it, which is one of the impetus for me coming to industry to work at Pharmacyclics — now an AbbVie company.

That decision turned into a decade-long, exciting journey pursuing the treatment of b-cell malignancies, and I certainly have not looked back.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

The most interesting thing is also the most exciting: when Pharmacyclics became an AbbVie company. The acquisition allowed teams to merge and gain access to new resources and targeted agents that could expand our research and opportunity to support cancer patients. Now within AbbVie, we look at “what’s the best way to treat patients” and how are we able to leverage the different mechanisms of actions at our disposal to broaden our horizons and extend the potential possibilities for treatment.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It might not be funny in the conventional way, but moving from academia to industry, there was an initial gap in how teams interpreted guidelines of disease evaluation. Academics develop these guidelines for treating patients and assessing their treatment outcomes or response, with an understanding that the guidelines are not meant to be taken to the Nth degree of specificity — rather meant truly as guidance. In industry and working with regulatory leaders, they apply the very letter of what the recommendations say and if there are inconsistencies, they oftentimes will be more conservative in their interpretation.

For example, in 2008 when the guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of CLL were updated, there was not a treatment approved for CLL under those guidelines. The interpretation of the guidelines in that moment showcased how important partnership is across health authorities, academics, physicians, patients, and industry to move therapies forward.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

A standout is the team’s ongoing commitment to finding the answers that will improve patient outcomes. This commitment has not swayed since we first started exploring a chemo-free option. Pharmacyclics/AbbVie and our partner Janssen place the unmet needs of patients at the forefront of our research priorities. We strive to look beyond clinical parameters like progression-free survival and listen to patients about what makes for a fulfilling life.

I am so pleased that today, patients entering a treatment stage of CLL have more therapeutic options, such as chemotherapy-free treatments, available to them than even a few years ago. This reality is truly remarkable, but we still have important work ahead of us to ensure that every patient living with this disease can benefit from our innovative medicines. I’m proud to work for a company that strives to make the best, better — whether through research, partnership, or advocacy.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are currently working on the prospect of an effective, time-limited, oral treatment for patients with CLL. We are examining the potential of combining our first-in-class treatments to achieve deep long lasting responses that could potentially allow “treatment holidays,” which is when a patient is able to stop taking their treatment for a period of time.

Our work in one short decade represents one of the largest programs for a single molecule in all of hematology and oncology. We continue to investigate the potential of this molecule and the broader science surrounding its mechanism. Ultimately, this work will converge with other avenues of research, such as cell therapy, immuno-oncology, and gene therapy, in the search for the best ways to apply our tools to outsmart cancers.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I am not satisfied with the status quo nor do I think most women would be. Generally speaking, women studying STEM are vastly outnumbered by men. And while the number of women in science and engineering jobs is growing, it is nowhere near where I think it could be.

Change comes from a variety of different places and people, but I think first and foremost it starts with changing the mindset of the next generation. I would like the young girls that are being brought up today to realize that their opportunities are not limited, and that girls and women are just as capable as boys and men. The status quo in this case should be challenged.

It is so important to teach and support young girls especially in terms of mentorship and role modeling. For me, I think it’s really promising that we have our first female Vice President [elect]. Having visible female leaders in the space can have a meaningful impact.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

A big challenge facing girls and women is the mindset and perception due to the status quo. It’s hard for some women to feel confident about their place in STEM because of the pervasive bias or assumptions. Another challenge is balancing your professional career and having/raising a family.

For me, I thought it was disenfranchising in terms of all the ladders and ceilings that women must break through in academia. In most academic universities across the country <10% of women hold full professor positions, compared to nearly 50% at the junior faculty level. Part of this is contributed to the aggressive tenure track [often seven years to promotion] that offered very little flexibility in addition to the fact that you’re competing against predominately male colleagues. Unfortunately, for many women, like myself, this was during the years when I was also thinking about my personal growth and starting a family.

I was faced with having a child or slowing down/taking time off my research program. Moving to industry, I could still be part of the change that STEM offers and enhance my skills within research yet offer myself more flexibility. I think it’s helpful to know that there are different avenues and paths to support your passion and career within STEM.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

Some people believe that women are underrepresented in certain STEM fields because of a lack of ambition. This is not true. Women are ambitious and have made serious contributions to STEM. For example, Marie Curie was not only the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, but she was the first person to receive two and the only person to win in two scientific fields. The pervasive bias that has been associated with STEM can play a role in driving young girls and women away from careers in the field. This is why visible female role models and exposure to STEM at a young age is so important and can influence interest in STEM at an earlier age. I feel fortunate and encouraged that, as part of Pharmacyclics when I first joined and now the larger AbbVie team, I’m sitting at the table with talented women leaders and have the opportunity to partner to push the needle forward for patients.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Collaboration is key. The programs we run are successful because of the value we put on our partnerships with other companies, academic institutions, and our patient communities. When the scientific community comes together, it can rapidly move the needle in transforming patient care.

Diversity supports problem solving. When people from different walks of life come together, they bring with them a unique perspective that you might not have originally thought of yourself, helping drive innovative approaches.

Do not stop learning. I think back to the start of my career nearly two decades ago when chemotherapy was really the only treatment option for patients with b-cell cancers. Now, we have immunotherapies, and can treat patients in a more targeted approach that caters not just to their type of cancer, but to the individual aberrations that make each cancer and patient unique. And I look forward to seeing what else we can accomplish in the next 10 years as I am truly humbled by the progress we have made over the last decade.

Take time for yourself. Everyone needs to take time for themselves and while it can sometimes be hard to find the right work/life balance, it’s so important. Breaks give your body and mind the time to recharge, which can help increase productivity and your overall health.

Mentorship. I have always valued the people in my life that have taken the time to mentor me over the years. Showing support and caring about your team’s growth and aspirations can go a long way.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Collaboration, communication, and teamwork are key ingredients to success. The saying “there is no I in team” is very poignant — especially in the healthcare space. My team thrives on diversity and uses it to strengthen the work that we do for patients and their communities. Having a wide representation of team members, from all walks of life, means you will have scientists taking different approaches to solving problems. Additionally, there can be value in pivoting your career — for me it not only unlocked a door of more flexibility to allow for personal growth, but also allowed me to be a catalyst at driving meaningful change for patients.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

This can be applied not just to women leaders, but all leaders. Have an open dialogue that encourages inclusivity among your team. Do not forget to recognize and acknowledge the great work of individuals, empowering them to continue developing their skills.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I was on faculty at UCSD my mentor would always tell me to “get it done,” meaning there may be more research, trials, etc. to do in the future but we need to prove and show something early to have a cascade effect. While it’s not always necessary to do things fast, doing things with agility and efficiency can open the door to more opportunities that, in the healthcare industry, can lead to additional patients getting the effective treatments they need, when and where they need it.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have always been motivated to help those in need. Throughout my career, I have been lucky enough to be a part of some lifechanging moments that has strengthened my commitment to helping cancer patients.

When I was telling patients in clinical practice that I was leaving UCSD to move to industry, I was proud to say I’d be able to help with the development of therapies that would be important to their future care. The standard treatment for CLL at the time included chemotherapy regimens that are often too aggressive for patients, especially since treatment for CLL usually begins late in life. In the clinic, I saw firsthand the toll that chemotherapy had on many CLL patients often with little clinical benefit. I decided that I could do the most good for patients by joining the search for more effective and tolerable treatments for CLL and joined the team at Pharmacyclics, now an AbbVie company.

It’s been nearly ten years since I joined and it’s humbling to look back and see how far we have come in transforming the way so many b-cell cancer patients are treated today.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It comes from where this conversation started: promoting and elevating women to go down the path they are most passionate about. I have a daughter and would like her alongside other young girls being brought up today to feel that they do not have limitations in terms of opportunity or career. Despite having a scientist as a mom, my daughter still makes statements that puzzle me, such as her dad is the one who pays for everything or buys her gifts — these are examples of teaching opportunities to help defy the normative and further point to the need for mentorship and female leadership visibility.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulder of Giants.” Isaac Newton.

We need to build and grow from the contributions and sacrifices of others. This quote really resonated for me in my academic career where I was personally influenced and supported by some of the world’s leaders in CLL. Also, more recently with the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In addition to standing on the shoulders of giants ourselves, we need to mentor and hold up those persons who will enact positive change in the future.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I am fortunate to have access to women scientific leaders through my position and the great work done to support women in the scientific community (e.g. American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Women Leaders in Oncology). I have been very impressed with Mayor London Breed’s local leadership through the pandemic as well. However, if I had to narrow it down, it would be Oprah Winfrey. There is no other single woman that I can think of in modern times that has broken through so many ceilings and has been such an empowering influence to women across all walks of life.

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