You might not know Jack. But you should.
In honor of World Malaria, we'd like to introduce you to Dr. Jack Newman, Amyris' co-founder and former Chief Scientific Officer. Jack is an inventor of original patented technology that led to an accessible cure for malaria. He's not only brilliant, but one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people you'll (seriously) ever meet. Here's a Q&A about the importance of recognizing World Malaria Day, and the path to discovering an accessible cure for malaria.
Why do you think World Malaria Day is so important for people to know about?
Malaria is a huge problem, one that is solvable in our lifetimes. But we’re going to live long lifetimes, and this is going to take more than a year, more than three years, more than five years. World Malaria Day is a great place to check in and see what our progress has been; to remind ourselves each year why we’re doing the things we are doing. I race bikes, and when I’m going up a hill, I’ve got my head down and I look up every once in a while. And when you look up once a year at the Malaria situation, and you see constant progress year on year, it makes that uphill struggle meaningful in terms of your ability to see progress. So each year on World Malaria Day, I like to check in and see where we are in terms of disease burden, in terms of mortality, drug distribution, bed nets, all the things that people are doing, and the trends are all in the right direction. World Malaria Day allows us each year to re-up our commitment to getting to the finish line.
What would you say to someone who doesn’t feel like Malaria affects them directly?
I’m an optimist. I see malaria infection going down; I see people recognizing malaria as a huge problem and the world getting better decade by decade. Some weeks it’s hard to feel progress, but if you look over a ten year or a one-hundred year time period things are getting better for people in the US and globally. I believe that’s because people have come to believe in something called Enlightened Self-Interest, which means if I care about how things go for my community that comes back to me. And globally if we all feel that way, everything gets better for everyone. I think that is the driving force making things better for everyone economically and politically, but also in terms of how we as humans relate to each other on this earth.
What inspired you to focus on tackling Malaria?
I think anyone who goes into science is driven by two big motivations. One is a curiosity about how things work. The other is the question, “How do I use my brains to try to make the world a better place?” Myself and the other founders of Amyris all went to Berkeley (and specifically the J. Keasling lab) to study chemical engineering because we wanted to find a way to take what we knew how to do and apply it to some great effect. At the time Amyris was getting off the ground, malaria drugs were in super short supply, and the prices were going through the roof. What we looked for was an opportunity to use biology to make the biggest impact we could, and that was certainly going to be the anti-malarial drug at that time. We knew we could do a lot of things with this technology, but that was the one that we wanted to launch our project with.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
I wanted to do something that was going to have a big, lasting, fantastic impact on the world. Whether you are a scientist in biology, whether you’re somebody who is working in the manufacturing plant, whether you’re interested in the business side of things, everyone has their expertise that they want to bring to this equation so that they can make big impact in the world. Having started with anti-malarials, everyone sees that’s where the company was founded, and that’s where we want to continue to drive progress, making the world a better place.
Tell us about the journey towards creating a cure for Malaria.
We realized the highest impact we could have in 2004 was to address the shortage of malaria cures in the production of this molecule called Artemisinin. How do you make this work for the developing world? It has to be cheaper than water. Enter the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and we could actually start getting what we knew to work in the lab, to work globally. And so, we put together this collaboration between U.C Berkeley, Amyris, and a non-profit pharma company called the Institute for OneWorld Health. Eventually we brought in Sanofi and then we had all the pieces.
We looked at each other in this new lab, and somebody had the idea to put the number of lives that were being lost every minute from malaria on the wall. And since then, I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a responsibility to a science project. We’d work late together, we’d bring our kids into the offices and take turns watching each other’s kids in the evening so that we could be in the lab. I remember I had this cradle that I could rock with one foot while I was typing on the computer – it was all hands on deck, and I remember one of the key scientists, a guy named Patrick Westfall, at one point was so close to hitting the milestone to really make this technology work for global distribution. He said, “I’m not going to shave until I get this result.” I just remember the beard getting longer and longer, and it was driving him crazy. Then one day, there he is with no beard. He doesn’t say anything – he just comes in with no beard, and I thought, “Oh my god, we’re there.” It was a lot of moments of triumph, a lot of moments of despair, and a lot of late nights eating bad Chinese food in the break room.
What did it feel like once your goal of developing a cure came to fruition?
The fact that we were all starting families, drove home the point of the project: most people who die from malaria are under five years old. And when you’ve just had a kid, you realize that for sheer luck you are born into a place that doesn’t have Malaria. But it could be your child if you weren’t so lucky to be born here. The pressure was nuts.
The real research drive was roughly three years. The first milestone we actually hit early, and that made everyone feel great, but the second milestone came late and we thought, “Oh crap, maybe we just got lucky with the first one.” The third one was the clincher in year three. And it was an idea that came through multiple conversations: one with Chris Paddon and Patrick Westfall at an airshow as they took the day to blow off some steam: another conversation with one of the lawyers who was a scientist. You bat around a hundred ideas every day, but this time was different. The question “Have you thought about using this other gene?” came up and we said, “Yeah, we’ve thought about it…” – because we had and it was a dark horse – “…but what makes you say that?” We talked about it, and said “Okay, we’re going to put a program in place to check out this other part of genetics.” Truth is there are very few moments in science where you actually run through the lab yelling, “Eureka! Eureka!” That was one of them.
What are you working on now?
Recently I’ve become interested in what it would take to get to global elimination of the mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and zika. Of course when you have a sick child, there is only one thing on your mind: “What can I do to make this child well again?” But looking at the big picture, you also have to ask, “What can I do to prevent that child from getting sick again?” A few years ago I started looking at technologies to control mosquitoes that transmit malaria from one person to another. If you can bring the mosquito populations down, you can prevent people from getting malaria in the first place. I contracted with the Federal Government on the subject and now I’m working with Zagaya, a non-profit, looking at how to get more malaria cures into clinics and sustainably reduce the number of disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Why do you think the Bay Area is an incubator for innovation in biotech?
I was just talking to some other folks about being in the Bay Area and why it’s such a vibrant area for science and technology, and startups. And part of it is, I think that people have gone beyond, “How do I make a living?” People are into, “What’s my calling in life?” and that’s what I want to do with my life. Like many, I don’t just want to show up at work every day, I want my work to be meaningful. And if you can provide meaningful work, people want to work and make things happen. I think honestly that is the new paradigm for business and these things we call “corporations,” which are really just “collectives of people.” Give us the opportunity to make a difference with our work and we will put our heart and soul into it.