Winter 2020 Issue

by Josh Babcock

Jennifer Adair (’05 PhD, School of Molecular Biosciences) had never heard of Pullman when she considered WSU’s National Institute of Health Protein Biotechnology Training Program. She even shamefully admits, at first, she confused WSU with the University of Washington. Now, the Coug is developing gene therapies to treat genetic disorders, HIV and cancer. Adair is a faculty member in the Clinical Research Division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Her goal: provide safe, cost-effective applications for gene therapy that can be implemented worldwide.

What does your job entail?

My research team develops new technologies that help to distribute gene therapy treatments on a global scale. We focus on delivering gene therapy to blood cells for a wide variety of diseases including diseases that arise from our own genetics (inherited diseases), or from infections, such as HIV, and also cancers. These diseases have incredible impacts on the population and they are global health burdens. Currently, the best approach to treat these diseases is a bone marrow transplant from someone with the same tissue type. Finding those matches is difficult and getting the matches to accept one another adds another layer of difficulty. We’re working to create a better treatment solution by using the patient’s own blood cells, completely eliminating the need for a match from another person.

Why is your work important?

Tens of millions of people on the planet are struggling with diseases that could be treated with blood cell gene therapy. Imagine if in a five-year period those tens of millions of people had the ability to work and be healthy and live a better quality of life. That’s tens of millions more brains worth of ideas that could have the freedom to think of other solutions to problems like climate change, food insecurity and political stability. Providing basic human health exponentially increases the advances we make as a species.

Why did you choose to join the graduate program at WSU?

My undergrad specialized in chemistry and I wanted to branch out and do more of a genetics and cell biology-based doctorate. When I came for the graduate school interview, it had only been a short time since WSU had announced the formation of the School of Molecular Biosciences, which meant you could do a doctorate in microbiology, genetics and cell biology, or biochemistry and biophysics, with any of the professors in any of those programs. I was also impressed with the structure of the program. I felt very comfortable that I would know exactly what my path was. Plus, out of all my graduate school interviews, it was the only one where there were other parents interviewing, and it was affordable.

How did WSU prepare you for your career?

WSU’s graduate program showed me how to do the basic research needed well, and the National Institute of Health Protein Biotechnology Training Program showed me what it would take to get the basic science to the FDA and the path to develop a future drug, experience that was crucial in landing my job at Fred Hutchinson. I loved the basic science exposure I got, but my enthusiasm came from doing science to change the way we treat diseases so we could rewrite the playbook for physicians. I was never embarrassed by enthusiasm and those at WSU never made me feel like that was something unacceptable in the field. I had big dreams when I came to WSU. The training program put me in a position to see those dreams to their current reality. I picked an encouraging adviser and along the way developed a skillset that gave me a lot of options once I realized that I was farther along the path than I thought I was.

What advice would you give students about to embark on a graduate degree?

Remember that great success primarily comes from failures, not by getting it right all the time. Take each failure as another step forward on the path to making a great advancement. Never feel like you already know it all. It’s great to be confident, but it’s good to be open to learning new things. When you’re humble and open minded it gives you the space to appreciate the value in other people’s ideas and will only encourage you to have better ones yourself.