John Lambert: A Thrill of a Career (Part 2)

See Part 1 to read about Dr. Lambert's journey with ImmunoGen from a young company to the biotech giant known today. In the final portion of our two-part interview, we spoke with Dr. Lambert about his advice for rising scientists and his views on the immunotherapy field.

Q: How has mentorship shaped your career (both being a mentor and having mentors)? What is some advice you have for people on each side of the relationship?

A: I certainly benefitted from having great mentors - my PhD supervisor, Richard Perham, and both my postdoc supervisors, Robert Traut at UC Davis, and John Coggins at Glasgow. Each of them was very supportive of my development, but with a light touch.

Also in the early days at ImmunoGen - incubated within the Dana Farber Cancer Institute from '81-‘87 - the research group would meet once every 5-6 weeks with our scientific advisory board. These were Baruj Benacerraf (Nobel winner in 1980) and Stuart Schlossman (a world-leading immunologist), Jeremy Knowles and Chris Walsh (Heads of the Department of Chemistry at Harvard and MIT, respectively), Emil Frei (who was Physician in Chief at the Dana Farber), Alan Sartorelli (Chair, Department of Pharmacology, Yale), and Phillip Sharp (Nobel winner in 1993). Now, to meet these incredible scientists and physicians and discuss what we were doing on a Saturday morning about every five weeks, it was just amazing.

I think one of the most important aspects of being a mentor is being honest with the people – being clear about what their strengths and weaknesses may be, and figuring out a strategy for them to manage or overcome their weaknesses.

Later on, as I got more into management and ultimately was CSO from 2008-2015, I was mentoring people. I think one of the most important aspects of being a mentor is being honest with the people – being clear about what their strengths and weaknesses may be, and figuring out a strategy for them to manage or overcome their weaknesses. What's thrilling is when someone actually takes this advice to heart, works on the weaknesses, and in the end their weakness becomes a strength.

Q: There's a balance between fostering personal growth and making sure a growing company is succeeding - how did you strike the right balance?

A: I think it's extremely important to actually have something outside the office to relax. As an undergraduate, I developed a love for rowing, and in doing a PhD at Cambridge, I was able to continue to row for my college crew. I'm still rowing now - it's my other passion besides science. I row basically most mornings when I'm in town and the river is not frozen, and compete in Masters’ races.

I think it's extremely important to actually have something outside the office to relax.

Dr. Lambert racing in a coxed four in 2013.

Q: What are some of the key technologies you think will drive the field of immunotherapies at large in the near future?

A: I think antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) will have their place. It's taken a while for the field to really figure out what are the right targets to make this technology work well, and there's been lots of additions of tools to the toolkit. Now, it's actually designing the right ADC to go after the right target for the right disease. I think over the next 2-3 years a few more successes will emerge.

Also, I think the general development of the anti-PD1 and anti-PD-L1 antibodies, the checkpoint inhibitors, has really created a lot of excitement. But of course PD1/PD-L1 is just one axis, so I think there's going to be a wide scope of further understanding all of the different ways tumors evade the immune system, and then identifying ways of overcoming these evasive mechanisms.

Q: How do you foresee informatics impacting immunotherapy as the field moves forward?

A: There are many, many ways that cells communicate with each other, particularly with cells of the immune system. These signals between immune cells and “self” and how cancer interacts with that seems to be an extraordinarily complex set of checks and balances. I think informatics is likely going to play a valuable role in helping discern what's going on. We haven't really scratched the surface ourselves; with ADCs you obviously need the target that cells bind to, but beyond that, why do some tumors respond and some not? How do you distinguish the patients that won't benefit from the ones that will? Informatics will be hugely important to try and figure that out, the signals of what's important (say - the genetic makeup of a cell) from the noise - really the next level of precision and personalized medicine.

It's just been a thrill of a career and very exciting to see our efforts result in compounds that, at the end of the day, can improve the lives of people living with cancer.

Q: Any last thoughts on your career looking back?

To have spent my career helping my colleagues develop an area that turned out be much more difficult than expected, but has led to one approved drug in breast cancer and starting a Phase III trial for ovarian cancer - it's just been a thrill of a career and very exciting to see our efforts result in compounds that, at the end of the day, can improve the lives of people living with cancer.