Data Driven

Hongmei Huang was born curious. She remembers receiving a set of books from her parents called 100,000 Whys when she was a child that explained things like why people get fevers, why the moon appears to follow us and why newsprint turns yellow over time. Turning the pages, Hongmei was fascinated that science could answer almost any question under the sun.

By college, Hongmei felt especially drawn to math and life sciences, so an admissions officer at Beijing University suggested she satisfy both passions by studying chemistry. She flourished, and then pursued graduate work in bio-analytical chemistry at the University of Michigan. As she studied proteins and peptides, she grew curious about the larger context of her work.

“I started thinking about what was behind the experiments, what we were trying to accomplish and how it fit into broader research,” she says. Hongmei began asking people how she could get into the biomedical field, and soon found herself pursuing a Ph.D. in bio-organic chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute near San Diego.

After graduate school, Hongmei landed her first biopharma industry job as a research investigator in medicinal chemistry, quickly rising through the ranks to become an oncology project leader. For the first time, she had a holistic view of all the data she and her colleagues worked with. And there was a lot of it. Developing a new medicine creates a mountain of data, from new insights into how a disease affects our cells to clinical trial data examining how effective and safe a new molecule is for patients.

“The data that we had was beyond what our Excel spreadsheets could handle. I knew that we needed to organize our data in a systematic way before things got out of control.”

Science Meets Technology

Hongmei threw herself into the challenge, remembering a traditional proverb her father sometimes quoted: “When you look at a mountain range from far away, it might seem impassable. But take the journey and you will find a path.”

Hongmei found her path. She began taking classes in computer science, and ended up leading efforts in both oncology and informatics, which concerns capturing, organizing and analyzing scientific and clinical data. She soon realized that her scientific background was a valuable asset in the burgeoning field of research and development informatics.

“It’s not just about technology. It’s about being able to connect the dots. We need people who understand both the science and the technology to look at these challenges in a very pragmatic and applicable way.”

Hongmei continued to hone her skills as she went on to lead both research and informatics teams, eventually becoming the global head of research informatics for a large pharmaceutical company. A few years later she got to know Sara Kenkare-Mitra, Genentech’s Senior Vice President, Development Sciences, and Jeff Helterbrand, Senior Vice President, Global Head of Biometrics. The trio began a general conversation about the challenges and opportunities of managing data in R&D. Hongmei began to appreciate her colleagues’ urgent desire to get the most out of the vast amount of scientific data becoming available in the preclinical and clinical realms.

Impressed by the growing data-driven culture at Genentech, and with a desire to lead the industry’s transformation of the data and informatics landscape for drug development, Hongmei joined Genentech in 2017 to build the informatics capabilities for the Development Sciences department.

“I felt like all the experience and background that I had gave me an opportunity to have an impact on the way our entire industry utilizes its data. This was an opportunity to do something really, really meaningful.”

Three years later, when Hongmei was promoted to Vice President, Development Sciences Informatics, Sara confirmed that Hongmei had indeed seized that opportunity.

“Hongmei has had a huge impact on the vision of informatics at Genentech and also established herself as an influential voice and a respected partner in the broader Roche efforts around data access and management,” Sara said.

A Data Culture

In her time at Genentech, Hongmei has led the creation of a sophisticated data ecosystem with interoperable components for scientific disciplines that she describes as making our data FAIR – a data science abbreviation that stands for findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable. When scientific or clinical data meet all of these criteria, it can be used many times over to generate insights by researchers throughout an organization – not just once for the purposes that led to its collection. Data from past clinical trials can shed new light on the discovery and development of the next generation of medicines, as well as better inform the design of future trials; machine learning and other computational methods can be applied to petabytes of data to find patterns no human could ever hope to detect. In fact, Genentech envisions creating a Human-Machine Partnership that combines the analytical brains of researchers with the digital brawn of computers to find new and more personalized ways to treat cancer and other diseases.

Achieving such goals on the scale of a research enterprise like Genentech’s is a monumental task requiring years of work and a significant amount of investment. Hongmei has been awed by the volume, diversity and quality of scientific data her colleagues produce, which is a necessary prerequisite for initiatives like the Human-Machine Partnership.

The most important ingredient of Genentech’s data FAIRification success, Hongmei says, is not the expertise she and her colleagues apply but their way of thinking. She believes that Genentech’s vision for improving healthcare will succeed not only because of their efforts or the technology they employ, but also because everyone understands the importance of data and all are willing to exert a little extra effort to ensure their contributions to the company’s vast collection work for the greater good.

“It’s really not only a technology solution, it’s also a culture. It’s a movement. You have to have the whole organization making a commitment. And I feel that commitment here.”