People Profile: It sometimes takes a scientist who is also a curious sleuth to pinpoint a virus.
The hepatitis C virus (HCV) hides in the liver and other tissues such as the spleen and gall bladder, and it mutates while hiding.
It’s an elusive, insidious and stealthy bug that sometimes takes years to make its presence known. And by that time, it may have caused serious liver damage.
Being in the hunt to find and neutralize such a formidable foe takes an innate sense of curiosity and focus to get at the “why.”
“One of my favorite books is 100,000 Whys by Han Qi De,” says Betty Yao, associate research fellow and associate scientific director, HCV development at AbbVie. “I was always curious and wanted to know how things worked. In biology things are not as logical as ‘one plus one equals two.’ This imperfect logic piqued my interest and led me in drug discovery and research.”
Yao was admitted to college at the age of 15, a bona fide gifted student and one of only 50 students in China admitted to the child prodigy school that year. But her parents convinced their gifted daughter to enroll at the local Jilin University instead, where she majored in biochemistry.
After college, Yao moved to New York City, and began graduate work at Albert Einstein Medical School in the Bronx, as a Ph.D. candidate in molecular biology and biochemistry. Subsequently, she completed three years of post-doctoral work at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City before joining the company.
A fascination with biology
Her interest in the squishy, mutating world of biology that she read about as a child paved the way for the critical thinking skills that she would bring to hepatitis C research.
“The hepatitis C virus is fascinating because it accumulates mutations during replication, making it a moving target,” Yao says. “That makes it difficult for the host immune system to fight against it.”
Before starting her work in AbbVie’s HCV program, Yao helped identify and validate drug targets and optimize molecules in the immunology and neuroscience areas.
While she enjoyed investigating novel targets and discovering clinical candidates, Yao always wondered what happened to a compound after it was discovered - like a parent who sends a child into the world, hoping that they will make their way safe and sound.
“I wanted to be closer to the end goal; bringing a new therapy to patients,” she says. “You want to see the results of years of work.”
She had that chance in HCV.
She likens drug discovery to a big funnel, where myriad ideas and possibilities are swirling around, but only a few compounds actually make their way to the next phase, clinical development. And it is there where those hard-won candidates can become novel therapies for treating diseases in patients.
“When all the laboratory work and meetings and tests and benchmarks and moments of doubt and joy and clinical trials are all accomplished, and we can finally get medicine into the hands of people who have waited for it to improve their quality of life – that represents the ‘why’,” Yao says.
That’s Yao, getting at the “why” once again.
Yao has more than 50 publications in peer-reviewed journals and is a frequent speaker and organizer at international scientific conferences. She was inducted into the AbbVie Community of Science in 2009.