As she neared the end of high school, Heleen Scheerens didn’t hesitate when her father asked what she wanted for graduation: “Let’s go to New York,” she said.
Growing up in the Netherlands, Heleen recalls being fascinated with the United States from an early age. It just felt like a place where she could be herself.
“I’m kind of a know-it-all. I have no respect for authority,” she confesses. “I felt drawn to the can-do attitude, the possibility and the freedom to speak your mind.”
Years later, she still feels that exhilaration of expressing her ideas as she pores over scientific puzzles with her colleagues.
Building Her Foundation
Heleen recalls her parents and some dedicated teachers encouraging her to pursue science since childhood. When it came time for college, she specialized in pharmacochemistry at Vrije University in Amsterdam because she wanted to design and test molecules to treat human diseases. She went on to study immunopharmacology in graduate school at Utrecht University, giving her a strong foundation for the next step.
Ever since her initial trip to New York, Heleen yearned for a chance to return to the U.S. She got her chance when she was offered a postdoctoral fellowship in immunology at DNAX Research Institute, an industry research lab in Palo Alto, California.
“If you want to treat human diseases, you can’t avoid immunology. It plays such a key role in every disease known to mankind.”
Following her postdoc, Heleen took her first two jobs at small companies focused on immunology, doing a broad spectrum of the preclinical work needed to prepare medicines for testing in clinical trials. She felt that, as a young scientist, her voice would be better heard in smaller organizations. But after the second company closed its doors, she decided to try a larger institution that might offer more stability and allow her to see her work through.
To follow her interest in translational research, she joined Genentech in 2006, where she quickly realized that her assumptions about big companies did not apply. Right away, mentors like Paul Fielder and Wendy Young worked closely with Heleen and encouraged her to speak up, learn from her mistakes and go after her goals. When she had an idea, Wendy would be right next to her, saying “just go do it.”
Heleen thrived in this culture: “None of my concerns about being a small fish in a big pond turned out to be true. People here will listen to you as long as you know your science.”
Heleen started as a scientist working in immunology and respiratory diseases, then became a senior scientist, group leader associate and ultimately stepped into her current role as the global head of OMNI (ophthalmology, metabolism, neurology, immunology, infectious diseases) Biomarker Development in the Development Sciences organization. Over time, she’s expanded far beyond her initial expertise and learned to add a strategic focus to her scientific acumen.
“I actually love that stuff -- knowing how to navigate the business, who to talk to at what point, and knowing the important stakeholders to engage. It’s amazing to get exposed to the diversity of what we have in the pipeline.”
This holistic perspective serves Heleen well in her current work across numerous therapeutic areas.
The Power of Biomarkers
Heleen oversees a team that uses biomarkers to gain insight into how investigational medicines are working. At its most basic level, a biomarker is something that can be measured to understand what is going on inside the body of a patient and plays an important role in the development of a potential medicine.
Long before personalized healthcare took the recent spotlight, Genentech and the OMNI biomarker team have emphasized using these biological insights to inform development. Heleen learned how important this process could be while working on asthma. About a decade ago, asthma was mostly seen as one uniform disease. That changed after Heleen and her colleagues helped distinguish different subtypes of the disease using biomarkers. These findings can help physicians find the best treatments for different groups of people with asthma, and inform the development of more personalized medicines.
Another unique aspect of Heleen’s group is the chance to follow the development of a potential medicine from early to late clinical development. “To be able to stay with a molecule as it progresses is quite unique and we can do that here.”
Paying it Forward
When she reflects on her 13 years with Genentech, Heleen often returns to the importance of encouraging team members at every level of the organization to voice their opinions.
Early on, she realized that even as a junior scientist she could participate on key committees and capture the ear of leadership. At the same time, she was awestruck by the scientific expertise of her peers. Today, as a mentor and leader overseeing a group of 60 people, she manages her team with a keen eye on nurturing a culture of valuing her team’s input, just as she experienced as a young scientist.
“Be true to yourself, speak up and keep the science and the patients in mind. If that’s what you focus on, there is no doubt you’ll succeed.”
Heleen Scheerens is the Global Head of OMNI Biomarker Development in Development Sciences at Genentech.