Yolanda Sanchez, PhD, recently joined the Bracken team as a Fractional Chief Scientific Officer Consultant. With an extensive background in early drug discovery, including pre-clinical development and strategy, and consulting within the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, we wanted to share a bit more about Yolanda’s experience, expertise, and current interest in precision and regenerative medicine.
Before diving into Yolanda’s scientific philosophy and pursuits, we must begin in Oviedo, Spain. Located in the province of Asturias in the northern coastal region, Oviedo shares similarities to the Pacific Northwest—lush greenery and lots of rain—and is home to the University of Oviedo where Yolanda completed undergrad and graduate school, leaving with a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology. From there, an opportunity for postdoc work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) brought Yolanda to the United States. Though she returned to Spain after completing her postdoc, she wouldn’t stay there for long.
Eventually, Yolanda decided to move to the United States for good, and she accepted a position as a research fellow and instructor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO. Then she went on to a faculty position at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, NC. This was an exciting time for Yolanda—setting up her own lab, applying for grants, and working with a network of new collaborators.
Though at the time she had no plans to leave academia, one of Yolanda’s colleagues had connections at the pharmaceutical company GSK, and, knowing her focus and experience in respiratory work, they suggested she consider applying for a position to head a group studying new targets for respiratory diseases.
“I looked at it and thought, you know what, I don't think I will get many opportunities that look like such a good fit for what I'm doing, and I definitely think that I should explore this.”
After GSK made her an offer, she decided to take the leap and accept, which also meant moving to Philadelphia.
During her fourteen-year tenure at GSK, Yolanda led teams in early drug discovery and held leadership positions, including Vice President of the Respiratory Therapy Area and Head, Stress and Repair Discovery Performance Unit.
“It was really a wonderful environment—great colleagues, and an opportunity to grow as a scientist and as a leader in many directions.”
After leaving GSK, Yolanda set out on her own as a consultant, allowing her scientific questions and inclinations to lead the way. With so many years in early drug discovery, Yolanda looks to partner with biotech companies that are in the beginning stages. Maybe they have a great idea or platform or potential drug target that makes them unique and worth pushing forward. The innovation and volatility of early drug discovery keeps her curious. Even when the unexpected happens, it’s always interesting for Yolanda—you then have to contend with the results or decide whether or not to proceed. While stopping a project can be difficult, especially several years in, she rebounds quickly, knowing something potentially successful is just around the corner.
“I always think there is something else coming down the pike, something potentially very interesting. So okay, this didn't work . . . let's try something else.”
Fascinated and galvanized by new technology, Yolanda sees the incredible potential for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to transform drug discovery.
“I'm excited about the amount of human biology data that is being generated. If we can harness that and explore it carefully, I think that we will come to a much deeper understanding of the complexity of human biology.”
Yolanda has become even more inspired by technology and science coming together to deliver solutions since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. She acknowledges what a difficult time it was until vaccines became available, but through it all, she knew science would deliver.
“I was so grateful at the time about being a scientist and thinking, science is going to get us out of this problem. . . . And the way those mRNA vaccines for COVID worked, it was a real breakthrough.”
Currently, there are two fields that hold particular interest for Yolanda. Precision medicine takes a patient’s genetics, environment, lifestyle, and other individual markers into account when prescribing care, thus making it more effective. Yolanda acknowledges the frustration of going to a doctor and being told that first you’ll try one treatment, and if that doesn’t work, you’ll try another, etc. Therefore, Yolanda is highly interested in how precision medicine delivers more successful outcomes by looking at the disease presentation in each individual patient based on their own pathology or molecular mechanism, etc.
The appeal of regenerative medicine is quite simple for Yolanda—it’s about curing the disease. Regenerative medicine is an umbrella term for many approaches that use cell and gene therapy to restore a defective gene or regenerate human tissue. The possibility of no longer just treating symptoms of a disease, but addressing the fundamental cause, is why Yolanda is gripped by this field.
“We identify a treatment that is going to cure the disease for you, period.”
As mentioned previously, Yolanda is captivated by AI and the possibilities this field holds in terms of data analysis. While she will not attempt to code, Yolanda is interested in the algorithms that are needed to cope with the amount of data currently generated, as no human is able to do so. With AI/ML processing these large data sets, the output can then be examined by a human, and in Yolanda’s case, hopefully the output will be different than expected.
“I like to be surprised. That’s when things really get interesting . . . some kind of breakthrough is hiding in there somewhere.”
Innovative science will continue to be Yolanda’s driving force as she asks questions and follows her curiosities, always hoping something unexpected will come along.