On any given day, Andrew Nash, CSL’s new Chief Scientific Officer, has a lot of ground to cover. He has his arms around 25 or 30 ongoing research projects that span five therapeutic areas and three strategic platforms – plasma fractionation, recombinant protein technology plus cell and gene therapy.
Add to that managing an expanded team of scientists and unavoidable tasks like devising budgets and making tough decisions. But even on his most challenging day, there’s an easy way to catch his attention and brighten his mood: Just show him some positive data.
“All of a sudden the whole week is good again,” he said.
Nash, who earned his doctorate in immunology from the University of Melbourne in Australia, recalls a moment when he was standing by a printer that was spitting out results about what would later become known as CSL334. They hit the mark.
“It’s just so exciting. It’s these little moments,” Nash said. “Research is tough. It’s not an easy area. The successes, when they happen, can be stupendous and really motivating.”
Hired in 2006, the result of an acquisition
Nash, who’s based in Australia, started out in academic research and once led a research group focused on the basic and applied aspects of cytokine biology. (Cytokines, small proteins that are part of the immune response, have been much in the news lately for their role in COVID-19.) Early on, he spent nine years at the University of Melbourne with the Centre for Animal Biotechnology before switching over to industry, where he says “unmet need is the starting point of the project.”
It requires one to ask: “Who are the patients we’re doing this for?” Nash said.
Fast forward to today, Nash has been with CSL for 14 years. But he was once “the new guy." He joined the company in 2006 after CSL purchased Zenyth, a small biotech, where he had risen to CEO. CSL acquired the company for its preclinical antibody candidates and Nash came over to the larger company as Senior Vice President of Research, a role he has held since, even today after adding Chief Scientific Officer to his responsibilities. He remembers being anxious about the move, but it turned into a blessing when the financial crisis of 2008 hit, he said.
CSL weathered that storm and entered more than a decade of growth and transformation, Nash said. The research team is now bigger than it’s ever been and the attitude toward new products and innovations took an ambitious turn. Nash said recent refinements to the company structure helped draw a clear picture of the therapeutic areas the company has its sights on (Immunology, Transplant, Respiratory, Hematology, Cardiac and Metabolic) and the strategic technology platforms through which they’ll go after them.
Since June alone, CSL Behring has acquired global license rights to a gene therapy program for Hemophilia B; it announced a partnership with Seattle Children’s Research Institute to work on gene therapy for primary immunodeficiency diseases; CSL Behring acquired a company that’s developing a monoclonal antibody designed to improve outcomes for patients who receive organ transplants; the company shared positive Phase 2 clinical trial data for another monoclonal antibody (mAb) as a potential treatment of the rare disease hereditary angioedema (HAE); and CSL Behring later announced that same mAb would be tested in a clinical trial to potentially treat severe respiratory distress, one of the most devastating complications of COVID-19, just one of five separate projects launched to help battle the global pandemic.
That’s a robust list and it’s not nearly all. How does Nash set priorities and determine what needs his attention?
“I have a fantastic team I can absolutely rely on,” Nash said. “The most important objective is to move the project forward, to have it leave research and move to clinical development.”
On that note, he’s both pragmatic and optimistic about the future.
“Our early stage pipeline is full of opportunities, but it needs to be continually refreshed and expanded if we want to deliver outcomes for our patients in such a competitive environment. I think we have a very talented group of both young and more experienced scientists that can deliver on that objective.”
The story of CSL312 and an appeal to young scientists
The story of garadacimab, the potential treatment for both HAE and COVID-19, goes back more than a decade. That’s when a research collaboration sprang up with the University of Wurzburg and CSL researchers working at our site in Marburg, Germany. The research team focused on the plasma protein FXIIa (Factor 12) and their subsequent work in this area, led from CSL’s Research Hub at the Bio21 Institute, has made them world leaders in understanding its biology.
“We’re still at the cutting edge. We recognized the opportunity and potential and really haven’t stopped for 10 or 12 years,” Nash said.
Working with top-tier research and academic institutions makes good sense and energizes the process. It’s an openness of attitude that Nash supports. While the R&D team isn’t the largest in the industry, it is growing, and they’re aiming to build a culture people want to be part of.
To potential partners, “we pitch our company as the best partner you’ll get who will collaborate with you and go on that journey with you,” Nash said.
To prospective employees, he says young scientists can seize the moment in an organization open to fresh perspectives.
“If you have a good idea, we want to hear about it,” Nash said.
And another selling point, he said, is the company’s focus on developing medicines for people who have rare and serious diseases. There’s no fluff.
“It’s not trivial illnesses we’re trying to treat,” Nash said. “The outcome of your work can have a significant impact.”
And though there’s plenty for Nash and his team to manage right now, he remains on the lookout for the next big thing. True to CSL culture, he likes a project that leans on quantitative data but it’s nice if it also strikes a chord with his instincts as a scientist. When something new lands in that sweet spot, it’s a happy day.
“I would give 10 average projects for one really good one any day of the week,” Nash said.