Women in Science

'Ardent wish' for cure for 'devastating' neurodegenerative diseases sparked woman's successful and fascinating career

By Liza Laws

- Last updated on GMT

Ardent wish to find cure for NDD led Andrea Pfeifer on a remarkable career path

Related tags Women in Science Research neurodegenerative diseases Patient centricity therapeutic antibodies Alzheimer's disease Parkinson's disease

The heavy burden on immediate family members with neurodegenerative diseases and their caregivers, was the initial driving force to study pharmacy for Andrea Pfeifer.

Now as co-founder of AC Immune, she tells us about her passion for work, how she got to where she is today and how women should never give up on their science dreams. 

Could you give us an overview of your work?

My personal dream is to help improve the lives of patients. This translates to a passion for work and an avid determination to succeed in developing new therapies to treat people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. In 2003, I co-founded AC Immune, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company that aims to become a global leader in precision medicine for these neurodegenerative diseases, spearheading multiple important novel approaches, including diagnostics, therapeutic antibodies, vaccines and small molecules. We are convinced that early diagnosis and timely intervention for at-risk groups is vital for future success in the fight against neurodegenerative diseases. As lost neurons cannot be replaced, we need to prevent this cellular death before clinical symptoms, such as cognitive decline, are detected. By diagnosing earlier, treatment to stop or even prevent this irreversible loss can be initiated earlier, including the concept of 'vaccination', where the immune system precisely targets the pathogenic misfolded proteins causing the disease.

Finding effective treatments for neurodegeneration is a massive undertaking and is still a work in progress, even after decades of industry effort. Therefore, I consider my task not only to drive research forward, but also promotion of public awareness of the societal challenges associated with dementia and the mobilization of capital, necessary to be able to make further progress as quickly as possible.

When did you realize you were interested in science? 

I felt a great desire to work in health research at a very early age. Growing up, there were people with chronic diseases in my family. I saw the burden these diseases place on both the patient and their immediate family and caregivers, and my most ardent wish was to have the ability to help. The quickest avenue for me to help was to study pharmacy with the specific goal of going into research because it is much shorter than studying medicine.

Could you describe your personal journey bringing us to where you are now? 

After my dissertation in cancer research in Germany, I went to the US continue with post-doctoral work in molecular carcinogenesis at the National Institutes of Health, Human Carcinogenesis Branch, in Bethesda. There I realised that you have to break down diseases to the molecular level to find the genetic changes that lead to it.

In 1998, I returned to Europe to take care of my sick father. I took a role as the head of research center at Nestlé in Switzerland, where my task was to connect science and business. Whilst at Nestlé I led the scientific development of a number of highly innovative, critically acclaimed products from laboratory to market, established the microbiome as a major cross-category product development platform and co-founded the life science focused Nestlé Venture Capital Fund.

Although the opportunities I had at a global multi-billion-dollar company like Nestlé were huge, I had a team of 600 people and budgets to match, the challenges and opportunities of working on serious health issues through groundbreaking biotechnological innovation appealed to me much more. So, when the opportunity arose to join in the founding of AC Immune, I didn't have to think twice.

What challenges did you face (as a woman or otherwise) along the way and what is the most valuable lesson you have learned?

In short, too many to mention! Every career is strewn with challenges, but there is immense satisfaction in assessing, addressing, and overcoming. And of course, each challenge addressed is an important experience that informs and improves future decisions.

To pick out a couple of examples: starting AC Immune was a risk and a huge challenge. I believed in the technology and really wanted to make it a success even though at that stage we had nothing else, in terms of money, product or business plan. We could clearly see what we had, and what we needed, and we set out to build on that. It took time, dedication, and a lot of hard work but we got there.

When I started my career, it was pretty rare to be a woman in science and research. I was often the only woman in a meeting, and I felt I had to work extra hard to be noticed and to get my ideas across. People had a tendency to ignore me or pretend I simply wasn’t there, so I had to be extra confident and make a splash to be noticed. Today, thankfully, the situation is much better – although we are not there yet – and by engaging with a more diverse talent pool, so much potential is being explored that otherwise would be going untapped.

What I have learnt over time is that you need management experience to set up a successful company. The student who discovers a new molecule and builds a company on it is something of a myth. The path to market is strewn with many obstacles, particularly for someone who has focused on science and may not have much of a business background. Even during the first contract negotiations, the young entrepreneur may be overwhelmed. It is also important to have a broad network even at the start-up stage, when you already need, or can secure access to, knowledge of intellectual property, financing, and communication with investors.

Although AC Immune started very small, we had the necessary knowledge and connections from the very beginning. Entrepreneurship is not just about having a good idea, but also working around the clock to build the support for that idea to make it a success – protecting your intellectual property, securing the financing, working with regulators, building relationships with investors, and much more.

What ignites your passion in your current role?

Simply put, neurodegenerative diseases are devastating, and it is imperative that we do more to relieve the suffering of patients and their families. We have been working to address neurodegeneration for decades and there is still so much to do. These are complicated multifactorial diseases that cause brain cells to lose function and die. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and related neurodegenerative diseases are spreading with the aging of our global population. Currently, over 50 million people worldwide are living with dementia, growing to 150 million by 2050, over 6 million with Parkinson’s disease, and over 8 million with NeuroOrphan diseases. Dementia healthcare alone already costs over USD 1 trillion annually, meanwhile it ravages families, leading to high incidence of depression and other stress-related diseases in caregivers. This is truly a terrible silent pandemic. And women are particularly affected by this: they make up 70% of patients and caregivers. These are the statistics that fuel my passion and keep me going in the face of the many challenges we face in drug development.

What is your current work ethos/style?

The COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrated the unifying capabilities of science, which I feel is a very powerful concept. It also showed us what can be achieved if we all work together towards a common goal. But unless there is a strong impetus for the whole of society to work together, we are continuously in a battle for attention and resources, whether that is in society, among policy makers or investors. More awareness and attention to Alzheimer's disease and brain health in general are therefore important personal causes for me. To promoting global cooperation in the field, I became one of the instigators of the World Economic Forum's Global CEO Initiative on Alzheimer's Disease (CEOi) and initiated the Global Brain Trust, which engages in multiple activities to impove women’s brain and mental health.

Could you share some advice for young women starting to develop an interest in science or wanting to pursue a career like yours?

At AC Immune, 57% of employees are women, making our company one of the few biotech companies to employ more women than men. The reason is not a quota. The reason is simply that we employ excellent scientists and many of them happen to be women. I can only encourage every woman to pursue a career in research. My advice? If you are interested in research, believe in yourself and follow this path consistently.

I believe it is important for young women to see what is possible, and that business fully taps into this talent. There are many more women in senior roles in science than there used to be but it is still not enough. I was honored to receive the first SEF.WomenAward​ presented by the Swiss Economic Forum for CEO of the Year in 2021. This is a heavy responsibility because I want to show young women what can be achieved with hard work and determination but at the same time be a source of advice and encouragement. Those of us in leadership have faced many of the same obstacles and we welcome the chance to act as mentors or advisors to talented women making their way up in the world.

It is important also to remember the progress that has been made. I am convinced that the times when a woman had to choose between family and career are over. My advice to employers is to try to support women as much as possible when it comes to starting a family. Based on my personal experience, they will give so much more back in return.

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