Eddie Adams has stacked up an impressive list of accomplishments and wealth of experience on his way to becoming Micronoma’s chief scientific officer (CSO), a role that enables him to combine his passion for solving problems with chemistry and biology in ways that mesh perfectly with the company’s goals of detecting cancer early and improving patient outcomes.
In this chat, Eddie provides a glimpse into what life is like as a CSO, charts some of the key stops he has made on his interesting path to Micronoma, and, above all, shows the kind of thoughtfulness and clarity of purpose that make him such a valuable asset to our team.
Q: What does an average day at work look like for you?
A: Most of what I do lately is try to drive collaborations with clinicians and clinician-researchers who have large collections of samples with patients who either have diagnosed cancers or non-cancer disorders from the same tissue. For example, in the case of lung cancers, we want to study not only lung cancers, we also want to study people who may have things like COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), sarcoidosis, or pulmonary fibrosis. So, I work to find experts in the field who not only understand these disorders really well, but who also have access to patient samples that are highly characterized and have been well managed.
When I’m not working on those things, I’m typically looking over my team’s internal data to determine if we are achieving our detection goals and coming up with new ways of looking at our results. Another big part of what I do is maintaining an up-to-date understanding of the state of the art in our field and focusing on developing patent opportunities to build as robust and extensive a portfolio for Micronoma as possible.
Q: One of Micronoma’s new, exciting collaborations is with the University of New South Wales. What can you tell us about it?
A: In the early stages of Micronoma, we decided that tackling cancers that are poorly served by current detection methods and biomarkers should be our focus, as these remain critical unmet needs.. So we wanted to do something really impactful in the liver cancer space, in addition to lung cancer. Liver cancer is an incredibly rapid killer that is typically discovered extremely late. Usually, by the time someone has been told they have liver cancer, they’re being told in late stage 3. And the progress from stage 3 to death is, unfortunately, very fast.
Fortunately, liver cancer is a relatively rare cancer. But that also means the total number of clinicians with access to samples is small. Marty Blaser, who is chairman of our Scientific Advisory Board, suggested contacting the University of New South Wales because of their interest in the microbiome and their great work on liver cancer.
They were already doing stool microbiome analyses, but it is challenging to turn this into a diagnostic tool. They had looked in plasma for metabolites. We could assist by looking at microbial nucleic acids in these samples, which made for a really compelling collaboration.
And it seems that the Australian government agreed with their $4M grant support. Overall, we’ve found that clinicians are really excited by Micronoma’s technology, and the engagements we have been having are really with the top people in their fields. I think people in cancer diagnostics are hungry for new biomarkers because the limitations of circulating tumor DNA for early-stage cancer detection are well known.
If you have an early-stage tumor, there’s only so much information that tumor is going to release into circulation. Detecting that as the tumor progresses becomes easier and easier. But in paper after paper, you see this trend that early-stage cancers are more often missed and late-stage cancers are usually detected very readily. If you’re up against that biological barrier where there is only so much cellular turnover, what else are you going to do? You need additional features to marry to that assay. That’s why people are really excited about what we’re doing. We have the data to prove that we can actually detect cancer at stages that other technologies can’t.
Q: What led you to Micronoma?
A: I received my bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from the Rochester Institute of Technology. In the course of getting that degree, I became interested in research and had the opportunity to work with Professor John Neenan. He was an organic chemist with an interest in irreversible enzyme inhibitors, and I started in his lab doing organic synthesis.
At the time, the only real drug there was to treat HIV was AZT. We were interested in taking AZT and making derivatives that could serve as irresistible inhibitors so that once reverse transcriptase engaged the compound it would be irreversibly linked to the base it had just installed and thereby inhibited from carrying out additional catalytic cycles.
I really loved that work because it was an opportunity to take my interest in biochemistry and marry it to chemistry, where I could really get into the nitty-gritty of looking at the crystal structure of the enzyme and come to understand how individual amino acids, these small, functional chemical units, tied together with this larger biochemical activity.
That sort of set the stage for the rest of my career. I’ve always tried to find opportunities where I can work at the interface of chemistry and biology. I don’t consider myself a biologist. And I don’t think I’m fully a chemist. But I love the space where they meet where I can take chemical concepts and use them to answer a biological question or create a tool that facilitates the advance of biological inquiry.
After RIT, I went to work at the diagnostics company Binaxx in Portland, Maine, which is another example in my career of chemistry and biology coming together. There, I got really interested in colloidal chemistry and nanoparticle synthesis and stabilization.
I later worked for what was then Quantum Dot Corporation, where I patented a polymer system that enabled the company to commercialize the use of quantum dots as a replacement for fluorescent dyes and use them as biological probes. That was a tremendous experience because it was my first real instance of being a truly independent researcher. I was fortunate to have outstanding mentors there who were not risk averse and who challenged me to take on big technical problems.
That experience gave me the confidence to pursue graduate school at MIT where I conducted research on immunological tolerance and in vivo targeting of specific innate immunity cells (dendritic cells).That led to post-doctoral work at Harvard Medical School and then the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research. That was a great experience because it gave me insight into how drugs are developed and how much technology is brought to bear on the identification and validation of new drug targets.
But I had a desire to return to colloid chemistry. I found a job in Albuquerque with NanoMR, where I was brought in to develop magnetic beads for use in a test that aimed to replace blood culture via immunomagnetic isolation of bacteria and fungi directly from whole blood in a manner that facilitated rapid downstream analysis. I later led the molecular diagnostics group there and that experience became my introduction into sample preparation chemistry, how to crack open complex cells to retrieve their genetic material, and how to do molecular assays. With this background, I got recruited by MOBIO to head their R&D department in San Diego, CA.
That was a phenomenal experience because it enabled me to consolidate so much of my research background into a single pursuit. I was able to use chemistry to make products to help others do really exciting research by facilitating the isolation of microbial nucleic acids from complex matrices, without dragging along a lot of other things that make downstream analysis impossible. MOBIO’s claim to fame was that they had a patented method of depleting a sample of DNA polymerase inhibitors. This was key because in the burgeoning microbiome field, microbiologists were not studying lab growth E Coli in simple matrices; they were (and still are) isolating microbial nucleic acids from very complex materials that are loaded with PCR inhibitors. By consistently delivering PCR inhibitor-free genetic material, our work enabled many important research projects to occur, such as the Human Microbiome Project, the Earth Microbiome Project, and many more.
Shortly after MOBIO was sold to QIAGEN, I went to Active Motif, another San Diego-based company, to work on epigenetics as VP of R&D. This was until Sandrine Miller-Montgomery, with whom I worked at MOBIO, recruited me to work at Micronoma.
Given all the steps in my career, joining Micronoma was the perfect synthesis of so many things that I’ve enjoyed scientifically: diagnostics, microbiome analysis, sample preparation chemistry, and molecular biology … all of this coming together to produce assays that will address a vital diagnostic challenge – finding cancer when you can still beat it!
We are definitely providing a solution that will directly impact patient lives, and, along the way, we are developing really cool technology. We already have fantastic innovations. Yet, there are so many more layers of potential discovery that our growing R&D team is going to be busy for a long time coming with new discoveries, getting new patents, and finding different biomarkers and ways of detecting cancer earlier.
Q: Other members of the team have had personal experiences with cancer. Have you had similar experiences that drew you to join Micronoma?
A: The list is unfortunately long but the one that will always stands out is my aunt Marisa, who died of lung cancer. Losing a family member is always devastating but Marisa’s passing was particularly tragic because my mom and her sister were actually separated for more than 20 years. My mom was from Eritrea, in northeast Africa. My dad was stationed there with the military, and that’s where he met my mom. When they left to come back to the states, my aunt stayed behind. She ended up marrying a military man as well, and they went to some other part of the world. This was pre-Internet, pre-cell phone – it wasn’t as easy to stay in touch, so they were basically separated for over 20 years. My mom and aunt were eventually reunited, but in just a few short years thereafter, Marisa was diagnosed with lung cancer. So they only had a small amount of time together. When this opportunity came around, and when Sandrine told me that lung cancer was going to be Micronoma’s first diagnostic target, it was all the more reason to be a part of it. Getting better at detecting cancer and taking steps early is critical.
Q: Do you have any hidden talents or skills?
A: Every night when I put my daughter to bed, she asks that I play the piano for her. I’m not an accomplished pianist by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a keyboard in her room. I do my best, and I really enjoy it. It’s probably just as relaxing for me as it is for her.