In a podcast released on June 29, "Money Maze" host Simon Brewer chatted with Amgen CEO Bob Bradway, who reflected on the company he leads and the biotech industry that Amgen helped to establish more than 40 years ago. "Money Maze" ranks in the top 1% of all podcasts globally. Prior guests have included General David Petraeus, former head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency; best-selling author Michael Lewis; and baseball-legend-turned-entrepreneur Alex Rodriguez.
"The story of Amgen," Bradway said, "is one of innovation, of first-in-class medicines making a profound difference for people who are struggling with really tough diseases." The company's mission – to serve patients – constitutes a powerful tool to align its roughly 25,000 employees around the world. "Everybody in this company understands that they have an opportunity to make a difference for patients who are suffering from serious disease," Bradway noted, "and that's a special feeling."
Founded in 1980, Amgen was at the forefront of developing biologic medicines produced using living cells. Until then, drugs were made using chemicals, a vastly simpler process but one that limited the number of disease-causing targets that could be pursued. According to Bradway, "[the success of] our first few medicines gave encouragement to hundreds and hundreds of other companies to try to repeat what Amgen had done."
Today, a rapidly aging global population is fuelling demand for ever-more-sophisticated medicines that can treat diseases associated with growing older, such as heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis. In the U.S., for example, someone experiences a heart attack or stroke every 40 seconds – despite our ability to predict who is most at risk and to prevent many of these events from occurring through medicines that dramatically lower LDL (or "bad") cholesterol. Bradway noted that Amgen is partnering with others in the healthcare community to achieve the bold goal of halving the number of heart attacks and strokes in the U.S. by 2030.
Obesity is another massive public health challenge, and one that affects people of all ages. Bradway said that while people whose genes improved their ability to store excess energy as fat might have enjoyed an evolutionary advantage, that's no longer the case today, when so much of the world has easy access to calories. What's more, fat cells are metabolically active and give rise to other illnesses, including heart and kidney disease, diabetes, asthma, osteoarthritis, and various cancers. Bradway noted that Amgen has an investigational medicine in Phase 2 clinical development for the treatment of obesity.
Asked what else he is excited about, Bradway cited bispecific T-cell engagers, or BiTE® molecules, which are designed to engage a patient's own immune cells to accurately target and then destroy cancer cells. Amgen is exploring the use of BiTEs to treat a number of different diseases, including small cell lung cancer, where the long-term survival rate is just 3 percent.
Amgen is also a pioneer in the use of human genetic data to understand diseases and develop new treatments, thanks in large part to its having acquired an Iceland-based company named deCODE genetics more than a decade ago. Iceland has a small population descended from relatively few ancestors and keeps meticulous health records on its citizens – making it an ideal place to identify rare gene variants associated with serious disease. Since then, Bradway said, "we have expanded well beyond Iceland so we can compare what we've learned about the genetics of that isolated population with more diverse populations around the world."
Still another exciting development involves Amgen's use of machine learning and artificial intelligence across its business. Bradway characterized the publication in July 2021 of Google subsidiary DeepMind's algorithms for predicting protein structure as a watershed moment for the biotechnology industry. Drug discovery and development depends heavily on the ability of researchers to predict a protein's three-dimensional structure, since a protein's shape determines its function in the body. To do so, scientists relied traditionally on time-consuming, labor-intensive, and costly techniques such as X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy. But thanks to AlphaFold and similar software programs, Bradway explained, "it became possible to generate a computer model for these three-dimensional structures, and that has enabled us potentially to cut out months – and in some cases even years – of work in trying to design medicines. We've had some successes already, and, no doubt, artificial intelligence will open the door to another era of more rapid and profound innovation."
Asked what advice he would offer to young people considering a career in biotechnology, Bradway described it as "an incredibly rewarding field [that offers] the ability to make a difference for people at a moment when they really need help." Despite much progress, Bradway added that there is still so much left to be discovered. "Sometimes we believe we know an awful lot about biology," he said, "but with each passing day I'm reminded how little we actually know."
To listen to the full podcast click here.