Michael Shepard, Zoology '73
To nominate alumni of the College of Biological Sciences to be profiled, contact:
Betsy Towner Levine
Mike Shepard has found new ways to blow off steam since his graduate school days, when he would fling dead sea urchins from his lab roof on to that of the sorority house sundeck next door.
The biotechnology entrepreneur and co-developer of the breakthrough breast-cancer drug Herceptin—the first monoclonal antibody used to treat malignancies—spent his early years researching sea urchin reproduction at Indiana University Bloomington, far from any ocean.
"The urchins had to be flown and then trucked from Santa Barbara to Indiana," Shepard said, so by the time they arrived many had already shed their eggs and sperm, and were therefore useless for his lab work.
Whenever a shipment arrived, he and his lab mates would work late into the night to salvage as many viable specimens as possible, then go up to the roof of their lab, where they had a view of the sorority house roof next door, and fling their frustrations across the way.
"In hindsight, I don't recommend anyone move to Indiana to study marine creatures," he laughed.
After a long shift in the lab these days, Shepard is more likely to be found relaxing with his family than tossing around dead crustaceans.
And his challenges are more likely to be found around his work to eradicate cancer, a problem to which Shepard has dedicated his career.
After earning his PhD and doing a post-doc in Bloomington, Shepard debated whether to continue in academia or join the biotech boom, where he could explore new therapeutics using recombinant DNA research. He decided to join Genentech in Northern California.
There, Shepard recalls, there was one question that guided his research more than others: Why, at the end of the 20th century, were we still treating cancers with poisons?
"We had made so many discoveries that would help us understand the differences between normal cells and tumor cells that it certainly was time to figure out how to exploit some of those very clear differences so that we can treat cancer without poisoning the patient," Shepard said.
One late night he and another scientist began talking, and wrote on the wall what all the key experiments necessary to prove that a monoclonal antibody could be used to treat certain breast cancer tumors harming normal cells.
The going theory at the time was that this antibody would not be able to penetrate tumors. But Shepard and his colleague delineated all the steps necessary to overcome that problem. "It was just part of the conversation at Genentech and it became my life—a 30-minute conversation became 30 years," Shepard said.
In fact, all the experiments worked, and after years of persistence, Herceptin became the first monoclonal antibody approved to treat tumors. The drug ushered in a sea of change in development of new therapies for cancer.
Shepard says that while developing Herceptin was the highlight of his research career, the work has also led him to grow in unexpected ways.
"At first I was so obsessed with this idea scientifically that the actual impact it would have on patients was something that I didn't really think about. That wasn't the reason why I was doing it," he said.
That changed when he went to his daughter's school to tell the kids about his work.
"Breast cancer research was kind of a weird conversation to have with little kids, so I went in there and started to explain to them how there is this disease and women get it and we are trying to fix it," Shepard said. "I had that all rehearsed. Then this one little girl got up, and she asked, 'Could that happen to my mom?'"
"I couldn't keep talking. I got so upset the teacher had to lead me out of the room."
In the years since, Shepard has met many patients and families who have faced the grief of cancer. And now he conducts his research for a different reason.
"Herceptin works really great for about half the people who have the gene for it. That's only about 12.5 percent of breast cancer patients and now some percentage of gastric cancer patients," he said. "So that's a very frustrating, sobering thing."
Today Shepard runs his own biotech firm, Halozyme, in the San Diego area. His work focuses on targeting the tumor microenvironment for therapeutic effects in malignancy and other diseases, with focus on pancreatic and non-small cell lung cancer.
"I have learned how to talk to patients and keep it together, but whenever they are telling me thank you, I have a really hard time just saying you're welcome," he said. "It makes me feel so good to have a part of saving lives, but on the other hand there are so many more cancer patients who still need a breakthrough to help their own disease.
"I don't have a glass-half-full view, but that enables me to keep going," he said.
That and, perhaps, some time now and again to blow off steam—sea urchins or no sea urchins.