Shaping the Future of Biotechnology

Edna Choi (MBP '05) talks about her responsibilities at Kite Pharma and her role as an Industrial Advisory Board member for Northwestern's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP).

Edna Choi graduated from Northwestern University's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP) in 2005. Since then, she's watched as the quality of students in the program increased and the breadth and depth of offerings within the program evolved.

Today, Choi serves as an Industrial Advisory Board (IAB) member for the program, which means she connects with program administrators and other industry leaders to ensure the current state of the program aligns with the micro and macro trends of the biotech industry in order to best prepare students to succeed in the industry.

Choi recently started a new job as an associate director for project management at Kite Pharma's new chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy clinical facility in Maryland. While visiting campus recently, Choi talked about her role at Kite and the excitement she feels about the CAR T-cell cancer immunotherapy. She also spoke about MBP and how it's aligning the curriculum not just to where the industry is today, but where it is going.  

What are some of your primary job responsibilities?

Right now, I'm trying to help get the site up and running. We are wrapping up construction and qualifying the site at the moment to prepare us for clinical manufacturing in order to meet some of the commitments that we have with our collaborator. That's the majority of my focus at the moment, but there are also additional responsibilities that I'm in charge of. For example, I represent the site from the Operational Excellence (OE) perspective. Most of my professional background is in OE.

What was it about the job that appealed to you?

I've been interested in Kite for a while. They are definitely one of the leading companies in the cell therapy arena, and specifically with the chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy treatment. And they are also one of the first to get a licensed product on the market. That product is Yescarta. So they kind of broke through the cell therapy ceiling, and I think that the product and the company itself has a very clear mission.

The product is to treat very late-stage lymphoma. Patients who are qualified for our treatments, this is their last hope to live, so it really puts everything in perspective. This particular therapy is really close to the patient. With my previous experiences, I wasn't as close to the patients. I was just producing and it goes to some warehouse and gets stocked, whereas this product goes straight to the patient. As soon as it leaves the site, it goes to the patient. There's a lot more meaning to what we do. And I think that everybody that works at Kite is very passionate about that.

You've said that it seems like a lot of times, the public doesn't differentiate between pharma and biotech. How do you explain the difference?

Your core pharma is made up of the small molecule products, and we're the large molecule products. I think the main difference is pharma is synthetic — everything is chemically based — so the cost will obviously be cheaper. On the biotech side, we're dealing with living things, whether it's the manufacturing process or the actual therapy itself. I think that it's much more challenging of a process to make that. And as you go from proteins to cell and gene therapy, that complexity and the requirements for sterility get much higher. 

What do you think is the most exciting part about biotech in 2019? 

There's definitely been an explosion in technology. Cell therapy is going to become more mainstream and then gene therapy is going to follow. We now have commercial cell therapy products that didn't exist a couple of years ago and that is creating a lot of momentum for the field. And then you're going to see that continue to explode. I think there are a lot of innovations that are happening in our industry.

What are the biggest challenges facing the biotech industry?

I think ethics can definitely be a tricky topic as you move into the gene therapy space. Now that we have scientists in China who created CRISPR babies, that's really scaring people, but I always think that fear shouldn't limit scientists' ability to try things. I think we need to address the ethical problems and push forward with some of this really exciting technology that has so much potential.

How do you think MBP is preparing students to enter into this space and be innovators and leaders? 

I think that having the Industrial Advisory Board is good because it makes sure that the curriculum stays relevant to the industry but is also addressing emerging trends. We want the program to focus on not just what's happening now, but what we think is going to happen in three to five years in the industry. The program needs to be able to align with those trends so that when the students graduate from the program, they are geared to support those emerging trends.