Dr. Jane Osbourn - AstraZeneca's MedImmune

Dr. Jane Osbourn
Company: MedImmune, AstraZeneca
Title: VP of R&D, BioSuperiors and Site Leader, Cambridge, U.K.

Dr. Jane Osbourn decided to go into biopharma for two reasons: She had a passion for science, and she wanted to make a difference in patients’ lives. So, in September 1993, she joined what was then known as the Cambridge Antibody Technology Centre (CAT), and, talking to Fierce 23 years later, she said her love of science goes back even further.

“Right from a young age I’ve always been really interested in science in general, combined with a love for problem-solving and understanding how the world works,” Osbourn said. “So it was natural for me to do science at university, and, when I was studying, molecular biology was really coming into its own. I was very much drawn into that side of things.”

She took on a few post-docs and then saw an advert for CAT which, she said, was at the time fundamentally a technology company using molecular biology in a way that she felt “quite extraordinary and inspiring.”

“The first three years of my time at CAT was fundamentally building up the technology. We needed to be at a point where it was robust and could deliver high-quality antibodies. That was the first milestone; then after creating that technology, it’s so exciting to be able to start to think about how you can deploy that.”

One of the drugs that emerged from this work would later become the world’s largest-selling drug: the anti-inflammatory treatment Humira (adalimumab), FDA-approved since 2002, which now delivers sales of more than $13 billion a year to AbbVie ($ABBV).

CAT itself went through a series of changes and today, MedImmune’s U.K. site near Cambridge is just a few miles away from where CAT was first set up in 1989, becoming one of the U.K.’s most successful first generation of biotech companies.

AstraZeneca ($AZN) bought CAT in 2006 for £702 million, and then merged it with the larger U.S. biologics acquisition, MedImmune, in 2007.

“This merger opened up a whole new world of possibilities,” Osbourn recalls, “around the breadth of different disease settings that we could work in, and the different ways in which we could get to that broad patient population.”

Despite being essentially in the same place for more than two decades, Osbourn said it doesn’t feel that way, as she has filled so many different roles in that time. Now she is the VP of research and development for BioSuperiors and the U.K. site leader at MedImmune, and she also chairs the U.K.’s biotech trade group BIA.

In 2010, Jane also won the Institute of Directors’ East of England Business Woman of the Year Award. These days, she sees “plenty of opportunities” for women in biotech, but said there’s more to be done to help women advance.

“We have definitely come a long way, and while we have more work to do, I do think that there are plenty of opportunities for women,” Osbourn said. “In the industry as a whole, and certainly in my experience at AstraZeneca and MedImmune, there is a real desire to get the right person into the right role, and that it doesn’t matter what gender, ethnicity, geographic region, age and so on you are or come from. If you’re the right person, you’re the right person.”

MedImmune’s leadership team is almost a 50-50 split between men and women, Osbourn said, with around 50% non-white staffers across the global MedImmune organization. “Sharing that best practice is the best way of ensuring that continues,” she said. “That’s why it’s so great that Fierce highlights this.”

The biopharma industry, and MedImmune as a part of that, are doing a good job on seeing talent and not focusing on gender, Osbourn contends. “It’s not just about putting more women into more senior roles, it’s all about diversity of talent; allowing leaders to have a range of different backgrounds, perspectives and ideas. That’s what creates a strong group.”

Given her high-level positions and years of experience, Osbourn has an open-door mentoring policy, from recent grads starting at MedImmune to those who’ve worked there as long as she has. “Over my time here I’ve become very connected and can help people seek out the right person to speak to, which always allows a different viewpoint,” she said. I think that’s always really important, and something I feel lucky to be able to offer. It’s the role of everyone at this level to help advance the next generation of talent through the organization.”

On the flip side, Osbourn said she’s also been lucky to have her own mentors throughout her academic and science career. During her Ph.D. study, one of her peers was a mentor, whom Osbourn found after her then-supervisor left for another job. She decided to stay--and to take her supervisor’s departure as an opportunity.

“That was a major and very important point in my confidence and development,” she said. “I went off and spoke to lots of different people and found someone a few years older than me doing their Ph.D. who really helped encourage me in experimental design and how to approach writing papers.”

But where the science is so important, Osbourn has also learned along the way how this science translates into patient outcomes, which really cements the importance of what the industry does.

“In my early career, and not long after Humira was approved, we had a patient come in and talk to us about the benefits that she had seen from treatment,” Osbourn recalled, going on to add, “That was a real moment for all of us in the room, when we thought, wow, we really can make a difference.”

Osbourn said that moment was a “turning point” in all their careers, and her group now tries to speak with patients whenever possible. The idea is to avoid focusing so much on the science that they end up “working in a vacuum.”

“You always need that broader perspective to remind us why we come to work every day,” she said.

Dr. Jane Osbourn - AstraZeneca's MedImmune