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Helen Thackray '86: Developing Treatments through Biotechnology

Kristina M. Jenkins

“I’m always problem solving,” says Shipley alumna Dr. Helen Thackray '86, a highly successful medical researcher, executive, professor, pediatrician, wife, and mother, who began her lifelong pursuit of scientific discovery with a simple, deep-rooted interest in biology and chemistry.

Currently, Thackray holds multiple positions in her field, serving primarily as Chief Medical Officer and Vice President of Clinical Development at GlycoMimetics, Inc., as well as an Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at Children’s National Medical Center, in the George Washington University School of Medicine.

The drive to pursue a career in science came naturally to Thackray—both of her parents were scientists and she excelled early in science and math—but, according to Thackray, it was her Shipley education that provided the solid foundation.

Thackray’s start at Shipley in the seventh grade was the natural result of family ties—her mother, Barbara Thackray, taught physics in the Upper School in the 1980s, and both Thackray and her younger sister attended while living in the Bryn Mawr area.

“I came into Shipley with a strong home environment for science interests, but Shipley gave me that training in all of the sciences and a sound foundation in science and math,” she says, noting Shipley chemistry teacher Denise Ferrier’s influence particularly.

“A sound understanding of how scientific principles apply in everyday life is something I gained at Shipley,” says Thackray.

With a demonstrated aptitude and the support to excel at both home and school, Thackray followed an accelerated program in math and science, but is quick to point out that her academic experience wasn’t limited by her chosen focus.

“One of the strengths of the School was the opportunity to try a number of different things, but try them rigorously,” she says. “A Shipley education means coming out with robust training across the disciplines.”

Beyond academics, Thackray’s time at Shipley gave her a firm understanding of her personal potential, too. “At that time, all of the science teachers at Shipley were women,” says Thackray. “My mom was a physicist, so I didn’t need a huge amount of role modeling for women in science, but the fact that all of the science teachers were women made it really obvious to me that women could go into science just as easily as men.”

With a secure academic and social foundation in place, Thackray graduated from Shipley and went on to study at Stanford University. She already knew and loved Stanford thanks to the year she spent living with her family on campus in 1983, when her father, Dr. Arnold Thackray, a professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania and the President of Philadelphia’s Chemical Heritage Foundation, was on sabbatical there.

At Stanford, Thackray studied biology and chemistry with an eye towards research, but it wasn’t until she began biochemistry and researching DNA and RNA that her interest in medicine inspired her to apply to medical school.

“It was through that process of learning how living biology works in human beings that I became very interested in what goes wrong in cells at the biochemical level during disease and how it can be treated or improved through medicine,” she says.

Thackray earned her Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Stanford University, and took a year to work in a research lab at the University School of Medicine, studying an early version of the chickenpox vaccine, while applying to medical schools.

“I was interested in biochemistry and how the body really works,” says Thackray, and when she was accepted into the medical school at George Washington University in Washington D.C., she quickly moved back to the East Coast.

At George Washington and subsequently at Children’s National Medical Center, Thackray’s interest in research drew her towards a pediatrics specialty and residency training, which served as a springboard for further study into the subspecialty of medical genetics. After her initial medical school training and residency, Thackray served as one of two pediatric chief residents for an additional year—a year that turned out to be crucial in her career.

“It’s a teaching position, chief resident, but also gives the opportunity to be exposed to research areas within the hospital and to explore what you’d like to do in your own career,” she says.

During her year as chief resident, Thackray applied to a medical genetics fellowship with the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to pursue more involvement on the scientific level of medical genetics and pediatrics, which Thackray explains are very closely related.

With the fellowship, Thackray veered from clinical practice, in favor of a research-focused trajectory. At NIH, not only was Thackray immersed in biomedical research, she was also exposed for the first time to the private sector of medical research, a departure from the familiar domain of academic and publicly funded studies.

“When I was at NIH, I saw lab scientists interacting with companies that were involved in research, and that was a new idea for me. You don’t get exposed to that in traditional medical training,” says Thackray.

Thackray found the close relationship between industry research and academic research fascinating, and aspects of the private industry sector particularly compelling, especially its need-driven motivation and more flexible makeup.

“Sometimes in academic research, there is a great deal of rigorous structure,” explains Thackray. “In industry, there can be less structure and more opportunity to go after something that creatively makes sense. It was that creative research side that drew me to industry.”

A serendipitous moment led Thackray to her first job in the private medical research industry, when a mentor at Children’s Hospital made an introduction that resulted in a position with Biosynexus, Inc.

“I completely changed direction at that point, from an academically driven career to an industry career in biotechnology,” she says. The shift was unexpected to Thackray, but she’s never looked back.

“It was an opportunity for me to take what I had learned about pediatrics and medical genetics, the whole medical aspect of my training, and apply it,” says Thackray.

As Vice President of Clinical Product Development at Biosynexus, Inc., Dr. Thackray oversaw complex clinical developments and embraced an entrepreneurial attitude. “I learned a great deal about clinical trial design and FDA regulations, which is not something they teach you in medical school,” she says.

In 2006, Thackray joined GlycoMimetics, a clinical-stage biotechnology company focused on glycobiology technology, which is essentially the study of the biochemistry of sugars in life.

Concurrent to her positions at Biosynexus and GlycoMimetics, Thackray holds a position as Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine, and she practiced as a board-certified hospital-based pediatrician at Children’s National Medical Center for more than 15 years.

After she began in industry, Thackray kept up her hospital privileges and maintained her teaching position, but volunteered for a few weeks a year instead of operating a full-time clinical practice. “I enjoy clinical practice and when you’re in an industry position, it’s very helpful to maintain skills and current knowledge,” she says.

These days, Thackray rarely makes it to the hospital for clinical work, since her research requires all of her professional attention.

“We spend our time thinking about biology and how molecules interact within a human being and with individual cells,” says Thackray, whose work attempts to disrupt the way the molecules behave to find a treatment for an inflammation-related disease, and then design a clinical trial to test the possible treatment and understand its implications.

“You have to think on your feet all of the time and you’re always solving problems. It’s very exciting and extremely rewarding,” she says. “It’s a new challenge every day.”

Since 2006, Thackray and her team have been working on a treatment for sickle cell disease, ushering a new drug through each phase of development. In clinical trials, they saw that the volunteers in the study who had received the drug were doing much better on average. Now, that drug is in late stage clinical testing, which, if successful, could lead to eventual approval by the FDA.

“That’s nine years of progress, and it feels like a valuable contribution,” she says.

This content was originally published in the Fall 2015 Shipley Magazine. Read more from this issue at http://blogs.shipleyschool.org/category/shipleymagazine/fall-2015/.
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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.