During her PhD program in neuroscience at the University of Virginia, Robin Kleiman hadn’t considered an industry career. “I was pretty happy. I had great mentors and lab mates, and my only real responsibility was to hang out in the lab and learn,” says the Senior Director of Translational Cellular Sciences at Biogen in Cambridge, MA. But if she could go back in time, Kleiman adds, “I would have told myself to take a pharmacology class or two.”
Not until the end of her postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco, did Kleiman became focused on applied research that would “yield concrete therapeutic approaches for patients.” Bolstered by a positive interview experience at Pfizer, she ventured into uncharted waters. “I became very excited about how much I could learn in a big pharma setting working on large multidisciplinary teams,” she explains.
Building on her training in cellular neurobiology, Kleiman developed in vitro assays to support drug discovery programs. “In vitro assay development in neurons is more complex than other cell types, and my academic experiences gave me a deep appreciation for all the ways that neurons are unique,” she says. Kleiman eventually also contributed her expertise to the faculty at the Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH) to help establish its Translational Neuroscience Center, where she served as Director of Preclinical Research.
“I like to think of my time at BCH as my ‘sabbatical’ back into academia. They wanted to recruit somebody with an industry background to help them think about what sort of infrastructure and relationships were needed to enable translation of the basic research coming from the neuroscience faculty into treatments for their patients,” says Kleiman. “For me, the opportunity to build basic drug discovery capabilities at a world-class academic medical center focused on neurodevelopmental disorders, during an era when many big pharma companies were exiting neuroscience, was an opportunity I could not pass up.”
Kleiman said she was moved by “parents starting foundations to support translational research for disorders that affected their children.” As a parent herself, she says she “felt a responsibility to help these groups ensure that the research that they supported with their fundraising efforts was directed at projects and approaches that would enable industry to develop treatments for their kids.”
Now at Biogen, Kleiman maintains collaborative relationships with BCH. “I don’t think it is an either/or proposition. I still work closely with several academic labs. My skill set is best applied to make medicines that will treat patients with CNS disorders wherever that opportunity is best,” she says.
Because of Biogen’s commitment to “leadership in neuroscience therapeutics and the scientific acumen of the leadership,” she says the company is a good fit for her, even though the pace can be unrelenting. Her current project “using patient iPSC-derived CNS cell types combined with bioengineered microphysiological systems to create predictive disease models” was expected to take a few years to establish. “[But] we can’t just wait until the end of three years to show value for portfolio programs,” Kleiman says. “It is always a juggling act to simultaneously demonstrate impact on the active portfolio while still building new capabilities.…It is a double-edged sword because the urgency of the effort to show impact for patients also represents a part of the role that I enjoy the most.”
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Mary Spiro is ASCB's Science Writer and Social Media Manager.