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Ken Carlson on Organizing a Coronavirus Therapeutic Project Team

The Humans of the Wyss (HOW): ATT Edition series highlights members of the Wyss Advanced Technology Team (ATTs), showcasing their role, their work, the influences that shape their approach, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond. Reliant on strong technical expertise, diverse industry experience, and a focus on end-user needs, ATTs translate high-risk technologies into innovative solutions to advance society.

With more than 25 years of experience as a drug hunter in biotech and biopharma companies, Ken Carlson was the perfect person to take the Wyss’ therapeutics efforts to the next level. But only a few months into the job, he’s facing something he’s never seen before: a global pandemic. The indication may be new, but Ken is deftly applying his expertise to coordinate a team working to find FDA-approved drugs that can be repurposed to fight COVID-19. Learn more about Ken and his work in this special edition of Humans of the Wyss.

What project are you working on related to COVID-19?

Ken Carlson on Organizing a Coronavirus Therapeutic Project Team
Ken Carlson, Lead Senior Staff Scientist, Project Lead of the Coronavirus Therapeutic Project Team, and member of the Advanced Technology Team. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

I am Project Lead of the Coronavirus Therapeutic Project Team with Don Ingber and other members of the Bioinspired Therapeutics & Diagnostics platform at the Wyss, working to identify therapeutics that can be advanced to clinical trials. Project teams in general are multidisciplinary teams that are formed to perform a specific function and are disbanded after the project is deemed complete. Project teams are common in industry but are not often used in academic research settings.

Our team is taking multiple approaches to identify potential COVID-19 therapeutics: computational algorithms based on COVID-19 patient data, molecular simulations of the virus binding protein coupled with computational and synthetic chemistry, and a drug repurposing effort looking at FDA-approved drugs that could have promising effects in COVID-19. These drugs can either work to inhibit the ability of the virus to infect or multiply in cells, or they can prevent the host immune system from overreacting. When the immune system overreacts to the virus, it causes a cytokine storm. Normally, cytokines would help a person cope with an infection, but in this case, they cause damage, such as breaking down the protective lining of the lungs, which can result in acute respiratory distress syndrome. That has been one of the lethal aspects of coronavirus infection.

The project team infrastructure brings these very smart, talented people under one umbrella to establish best practices in order to coordinate their activities, facilitate communication, and organize data and information. In only a few months, we have formed a cohesive, multidisciplinary project team of dedicated and talented biologists, virologists, computational scientists, and molecular modelers. It’s been a lot of fun, but also very intense. We’ve established a compound collection and have distributed hundreds of compounds for testing to our collaborators. We will also soon to initiate synthesis of new molecules with the help of our talented chemistry consultant.

How did you come to lead the Coronavirus Therapeutic Project Team?

I am a pharmacologist, biochemist, and molecular biologist by training with a long history in biopharma and biotech. Through various roles, from early in my career as a scientist to leadership roles, I have always focused on drug hunting. I have worked to identify drugs for various indications and brought many compounds to the clinic. From this, I have a deep understanding of the drug discovery and development process.

Ken Carlson on Organizing a Coronavirus Therapeutic Project Team
Ken Carlson started at the Wyss at the end of January hoping to organize therapeutic drug discovery efforts. Credit: Joe Johnston

When my former colleague, Angelika Fretzen, the Wyss Technology Translation Director, heard I was looking for new opportunities at the end of last year, she reached out to me and started selling me on the Wyss. I was intrigued and managed to wrangle an invite to the Wyss Retreat, and after spending the day there I was sold! Thanks Angelika! I started at the Wyss in late January with the goal of organizing our therapeutic drug discovery efforts. When I started, I participated in some ongoing smaller projects, helped write some Validation Project proposals, and got the lay of the land. I wanted to educate myself about what therapeutic drug discovery efforts were already happening so I could help identify what could be improved.

Due to my interest in drug discovery, I started poking my nose into how some of our teams who had already self-organized to confront the COVID-19 challenge we were testing compounds in various coronavirus approaches. This was before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization and before it was the hot topic on everyone’s mind. I started inquiring about how compounds were being brought in and how they were tested. As I dug deeper, I realized that compounds and data were not as accessible as they could be. So, I decided to have a meeting with everyone working on coronavirus efforts.

At the end of the meeting, everyone felt energized and wanted to meet regularly, and so the Coronavirus Therapeutic Project Team was formed. This project seemed like a perfect opportunity to unify and coordinate coronavirus therapeutic efforts, and accelerate our overall therapeutic drug discovery efforts at the Wyss. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a perfect vehicle for what was planned all along.

What are some challenges unique to the COVID-19 crisis?

To some extent we’re seeing the pandemic impact our supply chain. We’re looking to repurpose FDA approved drugs, so we have to bring those in and the timeline on the orders has been a bit slower, but it has not been too bad. We’ve also had to adapt to working in separate locations. Our team has gotten good at working remotely, and there’s a core, amazing group of people who are on site, but if we were all together, we’d be even more efficient. That said, I’m impressed with how effective we’ve been. We’re learning how to adapt, using tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. I think we’re facing these challenges head-on and adjusting as best as we can.

What excites you and keeps you motivated during this crisis?

In my time in biotech and biopharma, I worked on various projects for numerous unmet medical needs and indications, from heart failure to Alzheimer’s, from diabetes to pulmonary fibrosis. All of these projects had an urgency to them because people were suffering and dying from these conditions, but I have never worked on something as immediate, pressing, and in-the-now as a global pandemic. Usually, the FDA process is long and arduous, with good reason. Now, if you can identify an FDA approved drug that you think is going to help and you can provide the rationale and of course the supportive data, the FDA is accelerating testing so you could feasibly have a compound tested this year. That is incredible. Because of the fact that the need is so great, and this pandemic is so extraordinary, there’s a chance to impact patients’ lives much more immediately than ever before. That’s exciting!

I feel so fortunate to be able to apply my skills at a place with the creativity, amazing passion, and energy of the Wyss, and that we can have an effect on patients in the current health crisis.

Ken Carlson

It’s also incredible for me to be at a place like the Wyss at a moment like this. It is a fantastic career opportunity. I feel so fortunate to be able to apply my skills at a place with the creativity, amazing passion, and energy of the Wyss, and that we can have an effect on patients in the current health crisis. I feel privileged to be in this position at this time. It makes up for the long hours that everybody is putting in. It’s incredibly motivating.

What do you think are the biggest differences between working in industry and working in academia? How does the Wyss fit in between the two?

Funding is a big difference. While the funding challenges are similar, the funding models and the way you solve funding challenges are completely different. Another big difference is the approach to publications. In academia, publications are a major currency, and scientists are incentivized to publish their results as soon as possible. In industry, you really hold your discoveries close to your vest and delay publication for as long as you can. The Wyss is a bit of a hybrid.

The really cool thing about the Wyss is the entrepreneurial spirit, which you can feel with everybody.

Ken Carlson

But the really cool thing about the Wyss is the entrepreneurial spirit, which you can feel with everybody. This is not your typical academic setting, where people are pursuing science for the sole purpose of publishing papers and building expertise. Of course, that is important, but the Wyss is focused on applied research. There is an emphasis on spinning findings out into companies and creating products to help patients.

How are you bridging the gap between academia and industry at the Wyss?

I am doing my best to bring a lot of the elements that are useful from the biotech/biopharma world to the Wyss to help with drug discovery. Not everything you want to bring over is going to work and some things should not be brought over at all. The key is to walk a fine line where there’s enough process to prevent chaos but not so much that you kill ingenuity. Applying the project team model to the task at hand is an example of a process used in industry. At the Wyss, there’s an academic creativity that you’d never have in industry. My job is to bring in the process and drug discovery know-how. It’s not always an easy melding, but if you can do it successfully you can do incredible things for the world.

How can the project team infrastructure be applied in the future?

We’re trying to establish a best practice from the get-go. For example, I’m working closely with Rani Powers, a very talented data informatician who has organized our compound collection and biological results into a data dashboard for storage, acquisition, and dissemination of data. We are moving from a typical academic approach to how scientific data are stored and shared, which is more by email and in various Excel files in Dropbox folders, to a more modern, 2020-style data dashboard that is going to be incredible for this project and for the Wyss moving forward. By taking this therapeutic project team approach and applying it to the coronavirus pandemic, I think we’re going to build a system that can be replicated for other therapeutic projects and will really help streamline the Wyss’ overall drug discovery efforts. As we are responding to this pandemic, we’re also building our capabilities to do this type of thing again in the future, not just for therapeutic approaches but for other types of projects as well.

As we are responding to this pandemic, we’re also building our capabilities to do this type of thing again in the future, not just for therapeutic approaches but for other types of projects as well.

Ken Carlson

When not working, and not social distancing, how do you like to spend your time?

Ken Carlson on Organizing a Coronavirus Therapeutic Project Team
When he’s not at the Wyss and not social distancing, Ken Carlson loves to ride his bikes. Sometimes he rides with his granddaughter on a cargo bike (left) and other times he rides long-distances on a touring bike (right). Credit: Ken Carlson.

Often on a bicycle – I love being on two wheels, whether that’s a mountain bike, road bike, or a cargo bike with my 20-month-old granddaughter in the front. I’ll go on a long-distance bike ride or just use the bike to go shopping or commute to work. If my car sits in the garage for weeks on end, it makes me incredibly happy. I’m also an advocate for that lifestyle. I just stepped down as chair of Somerville’s bicycle advisory committee, where I served the Mayor on all things related to bicycle safety, bicycle infrastructure, and methods to grow Somerville and the Boston area into places for people to bike safely.

Generally, I like being outdoors. I am an avid rock climber and I like to kayak. I’m also a big music fan. I listen to a lot of music and go to a lot of concerts. My taste is very broad, and I always like learning about new bands. I enjoy everything from alternative music to jazz to classical to African music.

What does it feel like to be working towards translating cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?

I feel fortunate to be where I am at this moment in time, bringing my expertise in drug discovery to bear at a very amazing, high-energy, creative place, and working on a very urgent public health emergency of global proportions.

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