An interview with Professional in Residence Gary Lee: Leading industry in patient-driven cell and gene therapies

Gary Lee
Gary Lee. To join Lee’s virtual PIR visit, please register here.

Gary Lee, Ph.D. is the Chief Scientific Officer at Senti Biosciences and former VP of Cell Therapy at Sangamo Therapeutics. Lee is joining the QB3-Berkeley Professionals in Residence (PIR) program on February 12 and 19. He spoke with graduate student Madeline Zoltek about his experience in the biotechnology sphere translating basic science research into cutting-edge cell and gene therapies, and how graduate students can prepare for a career in industry.

Madeline Zoltek: What is your favorite part about your position as Chief Scientific Officer at Senti Biosciences?

Gary Lee: Working in industry, it’s easy to relate our day-to-day efforts at Senti to a clear set of goals, and to leverage the science to develop better therapeutics in areas of direct medical needs. There’s a patient at the end of the line waiting for researchers like us to develop the medicine they need. Whenever I have a day where I’m struggling with direction or data, the ability to remember these patients and the clear goals of Senti Bio always brings me back to where I need to be. I feel like I’m working in the cutting edge of synthetic biology at Senti now and balancing the ability to work on cool science that can also be used for a great cause is my favorite part of the job.

MZ: You transitioned from working on gene-editing technology at Sangamo to more synthetic gene circuit work at Senti. Tell me more about this transition.

GL: I joined Sangamo back in 2005 when the phrase ‘genome editing’ didn’t even exist. I was fortunate enough to have a front-row seat to watch how gene-editing technology developed over the last decade to begin building medicines that were previously not something you could even imagine. What kept me there was the ability to apply this technology to so many different diseases – I worked with infectious disease, cancer, hemoglobinopathies, and genetic disorders, among others, which kept my mind fresh. After 15 years, I was excited to think about what else we can do beyond precisely editing exact locations in the genome. Thinking about all the synthetic biology tools that are in the nascent stages of development now – like gene circuits and the ability to use DNA code to reprogram cells to make next-generation gene and cell therapies – was really exciting to me. So, after more than a decade at Sangamo, I decided I really wanted to learn something new, and synthetic biology just came calling for me.

MZ: How did your time as a Berkeley graduate student prepare you for a career in industry?

GL: The academic mindset – the basic techniques and tools and concepts of scientific research – are critical for success in industry and R&D as well. Learning to absorb information from publications and conferences and how to leverage them in your work is important. Learning to think deeply about the scientific and technical aspects of your project on a daily basis, and how to design an experiment to tactically solve small problems but maintain an overall strategic plan for how to get from A to B is also key. During my Ph.D., I was naïve about how drug development works, and one of my reasons for wanting to participate in the Professionals in Residence program is to share some of the knowledge that I’ve learned over the years to current Ph.D. candidates and postdocs at Cal, so hopefully, they’ll be more informed than I was.

MZ: On that note, what kind of advice would you give your younger self during your Ph.D. as you were preparing for your career?

GL: I think my mistake as I began my first job was to try to solve problems in isolation because I didn’t understand the larger landscape of drug development. Drug development is such a grand endeavor that it can never be tackled by a single person or even a few people. It takes a whole team, in which each individual contributes different areas of expertise to support the project and work together. My advice would be to join a team and be proactive with actually making acquaintances with everyone, both within your immediate research circle and outside as well, and to meet as many people across organizations as you can. Building those relationships along the way helps push your project forward and ultimately is something I wished I had done earlier.

MZ: You earned your Ph.D. in Berkeley’s chemical engineering department. How did you transition from chemical engineering to working with gene and cell therapies?

GL: I did my undergrad at CalTech and I was always more attracted to analytical sciences growing up – physics and chemistry, for example, and engineering. But when I joined Berkeley and looked through the faculty I could work with, there was a young faculty member who had just started at Berkeley named David Schaffer. I knew nothing about him because he wasn’t even at the school yet (he was still finishing his postdoc at the Salk Institute), and for reasons I still don’t quite understand, when I heard about his work in gene and cell therapy, it somehow spoke to me. I was really hoping to join a lab with a tangible goal in mind and find study questions that I could make an immediate connection with, and Dave’s lab turned out to be just the place.

MZ: How do you like to stay involved with UC Berkeley? Why did you decide to take part in the PIR program?

GL: I love to do what I can. When I was finishing grad school, I didn’t know much about industry; I didn’t have recruiters telling me about job openings – it was very different 15-plus years ago when there were only a handful of gene therapy companies in the country. At the time, I didn’t know what other positions or areas in industry like assay development or quality control really meant. And as confused as I was back then, now that I have some appreciation of industry and the different areas one can pursue, I want to at least share my experience. When I was looking for my first job out of grad school, I was fortunate to talk to two individuals in industry who were particularly helpful, and I stay connected to them and still thank them to this day. If I can pass it forward, I would love to do that.

Gary Lee, Ph.D. is a veteran biotech executive with over a decade of experience leading cell and gene therapy programs for human applications. As VP of Cell Therapy at Sangamo Therapeutics, Dr. Lee led the company’s programs around T-cell engineering, including CAR-T cell therapies for oncology applications (a platform recently licensed to Kite, a Gilead company) and T-cell therapies for HIV. Dr. Lee also served as the head of Sangamo’s immunology/Treg therapeutic pipeline. Dr. Lee received his B.S. in Chemical Engineering from California Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from UC Berkeley.

Madeline Zoltek is a graduate student in Alanna Schepartz’s lab at QB3-Berkeley, where she investigates the endosomal escape properties of cell-permeant miniature proteins for delivery of therapeutic proteins to cells.