Interviewing Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Tunde Bello: Career Highlights
It started with an interest in nature and wildlife. I spent a lot of time in the garden and in the parks of London, looking under rocks and fascinated by insects. And I loved watching nature documentaries, especially those starring David Attenborough. At school, I found biology, how nature works, fascinating. Biology was my forte, but it led me to become interested in chemistry and physics.
At that time in the UK, there was a lot of support for those going to university. I chose to study biomedical sciences, a course that oriented students to work in clinical trials and hospital laboratories.
My first job in that area was at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead and it really increased my passion for the field. I got to work with automated analyzers and all kinds of smart analytical systems. After a few years, I realized that I could do a scholarship in that profession or do a master’s degree. I decided that a master’s degree would open up my options. But it also broadened my understanding of instrumentation in multiple fields of sensor technologies. My MSc research project involved work for the US Department of Defense developing gas sensors for tanks to detect chemical warfare agents. It was a great experience.
After my master’s degree, I could go back to medical laboratory sciences or look for other opportunities. Once again, I decided to broaden my horizons. At the time, many jobs were being advertised in the pharmaceutical industry for analytical scientists, but the hiring process was quite intense. There was a three-day interview process and discussions with an occupational psychologist, which surprised me because I thought it was a low-level position. But I got the job. The day I joined, the company was called May & Baker. At the end of the day, it had become Rhône-Poulenc. Today, it’s actually Sanofi, because that’s the nature of the pharmaceutical industry!
My first foray was into the discovery area. I did a lot of method development, bioassay method development, and also learned about drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics. It was fascinating to find out how the drugs were developed. Over time, I wanted to get more involved in strategic decision making, and I noticed that all the older people had PhDs. And I was lucky that the company sponsored me to do a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences at King’s College University. It was another great experience because I was exposed to another angle: the academy. After my PhD, I returned to the company and was asked to lead a group on drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics.
I was approached by a recruiter who asked if I would be interested in working in the US with Bristol-Myers Squibb. Finally, I was able to choose between two positions; one was to stay in the field of preclinical drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics in which he had been working, the second option was clinical pharmacology and clinical pharmacokinetics.
Curiosity has driven most of my career decisions – I always want to learn more, so I opted for the new area, which exposed me to many wonderful programs and projects, helping me deepen my understanding of drug development. I was there for about five years before Pfizer tempted me with more curiosity! I was there for 11 years before returning to BMS to lead the clinical pharmacology organization that supports oncology. At the time, BMS was establishing itself as one of the leaders in the immuno-oncology space, a revolutionary new field that really appealed to me. Since then, I have had great opportunities to work on a number of exciting and impactful programs, as well as advance my career.
When I started in the pharmaceutical industry, it was the era of blockbuster drugs that had a more general approach to treating diseases. Today, however, we know that almost all diseases are made up of different subtypes of patients with variations in the disease. Patient populations are becoming increasingly segmented, driving the need for precision medicine. With a greater understanding of biology, we can develop therapies that more precisely target the pathways required to influence and change the course of a disease.
BMS covers many different therapeutic modalities, including small molecules, monoclonals, antibody-drug conjugates, and cell therapies, giving us a wide variety of options to develop treatments for various diseases. It’s amazing to think about what we can achieve and what we will be able to do in the future.
At this time, BMS is one of the leaders in the development of protein homeostasis therapies. In short, with a protein degradation platform, we can direct the body’s own system to target and degrade specific proteins associated with disease. BMS has a number of agents in clinical development in this space that could revolutionize the treatment of a large number of different diseases.
I have been very lucky in my career having worked on a handful of drugs that have improved the lives of patients. When I joined BMS, our PD-1 inhibitor, Opdivo (nivolumab), had only been approved for one indication. The day I joined, it got its second, and now it’s been approved to treat many other types of cancer.
I am very excited about the field of immuno-oncology. To give just one example of the potential of immuno-oncology drugs, I point to the case of former US President Jimmy Carter, who was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma around 2015-2016. Until a few years earlier, this diagnosis would have essentially been a death sentence that would have been carried out in one year. Instead, President Carter was treated with an immunotherapy (not BMS), and he is still with us today.
It has been a real pleasure for me to build so many great relationships and work with so many great people, all with the common goal of advancing therapies to make a difference. I run a team, so a big part of my job is doing public relations for them and letting the organization at large know what they’re doing and the value they bring to the drug development process. They are a wonderful group of scientists who are truly capable and passionate about the role we play in advancing drug development programs from clinic to patient.
I consider myself very lucky to have my job. Every day I learn something new and that’s amazing.
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