Connecting Science to Commercialization – Claire Aldridge, Ph.D.
Claire Aldridge, Ph.D., is leading efforts to make Dallas a leading biotechnology hub which can compete with the likes of San Francisco or Boston. As former Associate Vice President of UT Southwestern’s Office for Technology Development and as scientific advisor to Lyda Hill Philanthropies and LH Capital, she has devoted her career to supporting innovation in our region.
Dr. Aldridge aims to bridge the gap between leading edge research and the path to a product. By taking findings from the lab and translating them to real-life solutions, she has helped pave the path for new treatments and technologies.
“I went back to UT Southwestern very intentionally to bring the experience and perspective I gained as a biotech venture capitalist. I wanted to bring that perspective back to the institution to allow UTSW to partner with entrepreneurs and investors to test the discovery as a practical solution to an unmet medical need. We did a lot of education and outreach to the faculty to say, ‘This is how you move something down a commercialization path,’” Dr. Aldridge said.
One of many projects that came to fruition during Dr. Aldridge’s tenure at UT Southwestern was the launch of Taysha Gene Therapies. Taysha Gene Therapies is a gene therapy company dedicated to eradicating monogenic central nervous system (CNS) diseases. The startup develops curative medicines with a patient-centric approach and aims to rapidly translate treatments from bench to bedside. By combining the world class research of UTSW with seasoned gene therapy company executives, Taysha can accelerate moving these potentially life-saving treatments into patients.
“I like to use the analogy of a chemical reaction. If you want a chemical reaction to happen, you need to get the two molecules close enough that they will bump into each other and make something happen. You never know which collision is going to drive a chemical reaction. So, we must try to bring everybody together to facilitate all of those collisions,” explained Dr. Aldridge.
Driving these types of collisions is exactly what her work is achieving through Lyda Hill Philanthropies’ latest project: Pegasus Park. The 23-acre, mixed-use office campus is designed to bolster local biotech, social impact, and corporate innovation. In September 2020, Pegasus Park announced that BioLabs, headquartered in Cambridge, MA, selected Dallas as its first location in the central United States.
BioLabs at Pegasus Park, a science coworking facility offering shared and private laboratory and office spaces for early-stage scientific ventures, will contribute to the building of the already thriving start-up community in North Texas and positions Dallas as the next major hub for biotech and health care innovation.
Currently, Dr. Aldridge is partnering with Lyda Hill Philanthropies and BioLabs to prepare the lab space for companies to move into and occupy. Recently, LaunchBio and TechFW announced the eight Dallas-based startups that will make up ThinkLab’s first Dallas cohort program. Made possible also in partnership with Pegasus Park and the UT Southwestern Office for Technology Development, the program provides a multi-week business training to educate entrepreneurs about customer discovery, pitch decks, and market analysis. The goal is to empower them with the skills and resources to make their projects commercializable.
Dr. Aldridge attributes her ability to overcome challenges along her career path to two female mentors who inspired and encouraged her while she was completing her Ph.D. at Duke University. One of the influential figures in her life was Dr. Fran Ward, who taught her the valuable and lasting lesson that pursuing a passion in science did not have to take place in a research lab.
Another leading woman who inspired her during her time at Duke University was an advisor named Dr. Carolyn Doyle, who helped shape her career by serving as an exceptional role model. Though Dr. Doyle unfortunately passed away recently, Dr. Aldridge proudly carries on her legacy by passing on her knowledge and mentorship to other girls who represent the next generation of leading women in science.
“One of the ways I can honor [my mentors] is by providing guidance and opportunities for the next generation of women. That is a role that we all have an opportunity to play – to continue to prepare the next generation to take leadership positions in STEM careers and be women that they can look to as role models and advisors who can provide guidance and mentorship.” Claire Aldridge, Ph.D.
Through Dr. Aldridge’s leadership, she is fostering an innovation ecosystem in North Texas that will sustain life-changing medical advances for years to come.
Leading Breakthroughs in Treating Heart Disease – Helen H. Hobbs, M.D.
Helen H. Hobbs, M.D., is another example of a leading woman in our community whose work has resulted in years of medical progress and innovation.
Dr. Hobbs has a storied career as a geneticist. Her story began at UT Southwestern in the late 1980s, where she worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the molecular genetics lab of UT Southwestern scientists Drs. Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein. The two scientists would later become Nobel Laureates for discovering the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) receptor, which controls the level of cholesterol in the blood and in cells.
In the early 2000s, a French geneticist discovered a genetic connection between a higher risk for heart disease and a newly identified gene known as PCSK9. A few years prior, Dr. Hobbs and her team at UT Southwestern, Dr. Jonathan Cohen and Dr. Ronald Victor, had launched a study to create a detailed physiological profile of more than 3,000 Dallas residents.
After learning about the PCSK9 gene, Dr. Hobbs and her team began searching for connections between heart disease and the newly identified gene in their study participants. She and Dr. Cohen found that 2% of African Americans in Dallas possessed a genetic mutation of the PCSK9 gene, which inactivated the protein and correlated with a lower level of plasma cholesterol. Those with this genetic mutation were completely protected from heart disease, regardless of external risk factors or underlying medical conditions.
Her research was one of the first major breakthroughs in discovering new ways to treat heart disease since the work of Drs. Brown and Goldstein, earning her the prestigious Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2016.
Today, Dr. Hobbs is an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a Professor of Internal Medicine and Molecular Genetics at UT Southwestern. She is Director of the McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development and the Director of the Dallas Heart Study, a longitudinal, multiethnic, population-based study of Dallas County, which is now supported by the Hoffman Family Center in Genetics and Epidemiology, and by the National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS).
Dr. Hobbs has witnessed, firsthand, the power of investing in women in science and continues to advocate for the importance of inspiring the next wave of female leaders.
“As we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we are reminded of the incredible accomplishments leading women have achieved over the decades. We are also reminded of our responsibility to continue empowering the next generation of women to pursue their passions by encouraging inclusivity in the field of STEM. We must pave this path together by uplifting and supporting girls to lead at the frontier of innovation.” Helen H. Hobbs, M.D.
Investing in the Next Generation – Lyda Hill Philanthropies
Drs. Aldridge and Hobbs serve as inspiring examples, and both recognize the need for continued encouragement and mentorship of the next generation of women. This is where significant work of Lyda Hill Philanthropies comes in.
Among several innovative projects, Lyda Hill and Nicole Small are expertly spearheading the efforts of IF/THEN, an initiative of Lyda Hill Philanthropies. IF/THEN’s mission is to further advance women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) by empowering current innovators and inspiring the next generation of pioneers.
One of the many ways IF/THEN is advancing the careers of women in STEM is by creating more coverage of female role models in the media. About 63% of STEM professionals portrayed in media are men, outnumbering women STEM characters nearly two-to-one. To address this gap in coverage, IF/THEN recently launched the IF/THEN Collection. The Collection includes authentic images and videos of real women in STEM careers for use in science museums, classrooms, and more. It features 125 female STEM innovators selected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Lyda Hill Philanthropies to be AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors.
By highlighting real women making a difference in their careers, IF/THEN is creating a culture shift in media consumption to expose more girls to STEM careers and role models.
“The IF/THEN® initiative exists to empower the next generation of girls. In order to inspire young girls to become our next pioneers in science, medicine, engineering, and more, we are highlighting contemporary female role models in STEM so they can see themselves in these careers. Our aim is to expose girls and young women to professional role models and the possibilities available that helps them see and believe they can follow their dreams in these careers, too.” Lyda Hill
Four UT Southwestern faculty members have been selected to serve as female role models as IF/THEN Ambassadors: Drs. Julie Mirpuri, Danielle Robertson, Nina Niu Sanford, and Kirsten Tulchin-Francis. Of the 125 women selected nation-wide, UT Southwestern is tied with Stanford University for the highest number of Ambassadors from an academic institution. We are delighted to support such talented women in our community who also inspire others on a national scale.