Dr. Annaliesa Anderson is Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer of Bacterial Vaccines within Vaccine Research and Development at Pfizer Inc. She earned her PhD in Biological Sciences from the University of Warwick in the UK. Afterwards, Liesa was awarded a Natural Environment Research Council postdoctoral fellowship which she completed at the University of Coventry. She was subsequently awarded a Royal Society postdoctoral fellowship during which she conducted research at the University of Warwick. Next, Liesa worked for about 9 years at Merck Research Laboratories. She then joined the team at Wyeth a few years before it was acquired by Pfizer, and she has been with Pfizer ever since. Liesa is a Member of the Microbiology Society, a Fellow of the American Academy for Microbiology, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, and she serves on the Microbiology and Infectious Disease Steering Committee at the NY Academy of Sciences. In our interview Annaliesa will share more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:38)
Outside of work, Liesa loves spending time at home with her husband, sixteen year old son, twelve year old daughter, and the family’s new dog. She also enjoys being outside, visiting the Jersey Shore beaches, taking exercise classes with her husband, and serving as a girl scout leader.
The Scientific Side (4:31)
In the lab, Liesa is working to develop new vaccines that prevent infectious diseases caused by bacteria.
A Dose of Motivation (6:18)
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
“You’re only as good as your last mistake.”
What Got You Hooked on Science? (13:36)
Becoming a veterinarian or a doctor were the two professions that topped Liesa’s list of dream careers when she was young. Her friend’s father was a doctor, and he used to bring home items from the butcher shop to dissect with Lies and her friend to teach them how these parts worked. Liesa was fascinated by biology, and she recalls watching a TV show that described how bacteria were being used to make human growth hormone to help children who needed it. She was intrigued by the possibility of using bacteria to help people. During high school, Liesa attended a week-long congress for students interested in medicine, and she learned more about what it was like to be a doctor and the different career opportunities she could pursue. She was captivated by the lecture of one of the presenters who was a biomedical researcher. This presentation prompted her to study biological sciences in college and pursue a career in research.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (21:16)
The first vaccine-related project Liesa worked on aimed to develop a vaccine to prevent staphylococcus aureus (i.e. methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA) infection. They spent many years developing a potential vaccine candidate and got to the point where it was being tested in the clinic on a particular surgical population. This past December, their team completed an interim analysis, and they discovered that it was not viable to continue working on this vaccine candidate. This was a really disappointing finding because MRSA is terrible pathogen that causes a lot of morbidity and mortality. Liesa was really hopeful that they had found a way to stop this pathogen and a good clinical population for testing the vaccine candidate, but it didn’t work out.
A Shining Success! (25:28)
About 15-20 years ago, many vaccine companies were thinking about developing vaccines to prevent group B streptococcus infection. These catastrophic infections can occur in newborns within the first few months of life, and there is not a good way to vaccinate newborns against infection. As a result, it is necessary to ensure mothers have enough antibodies to pass on to their infants to prevent infection. This can be done by giving pregnant women a maternal vaccine against the bacteria. Vaccine companies were initially concerned about administering vaccines to pregnant women, so development of this vaccine was not pursued. However, data on tetanus vaccinations for pregnant women in lower and middle income countries has since demonstrated the safety and effectiveness of vaccinating pregnant women. Also, it has become more common even in high income countries to vaccinate pregnant women against diseases like the flu and whooping cough. These advances have opened the door for Liesa and her team to begin working on developing the group B streptococcus vaccine. Liesa is also excited about the opportunity they have to work on a vaccine against clostridium difficile bacteria. This bacteria can overgrow in people’s digestive tracks after receiving antibiotics. Some cases of infection are mild, but other cases can be fatal. Liesa helped in the initial development process, and she was delighted when this complicated, high risk project produced good results in phase I and phase II studies. They are excited to be moving their vaccine candidate into phase III trials and potentially seeing it advance into use to prevent this terrible disease.
Book Recommendations (31:00)
Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, The No A**hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, In Trouble Again: A Journey Between Orinoco and the Amazon by Redmond O’Hanlon, Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O’Hanlon
Most Treasured Travel (33:11)
While working as a microbial ecologist during her fellowship with the Royal Society, Liesa had an opportunity to travel to Cuba to sample the soil there for bacteria. The goal was to find new substances made by bacteria that could be used in medicine. Liesa visited different areas of the country by car and by boat, including several remote islands, to collect soil samples. This was a lot of fun, and she was able to see so much of this beautiful country, learn about its history, and meet many friendly people. Liesa also enjoyed a more recent trip to Cambridge University to collaborate with a group of pathogen diversity experts. She had been wanting to work with these researchers for years, and they finally found the perfect opportunity. It was amazing to meet the people whose papers she has been reading for years. A third place that has been memorable for Liesa to visit for science has been South Africa. They are working with people in South Africa because the region has high rates of group B streptococcus infection in their newborns. Visiting South Africa has been a wonderful opportunity, and it is an amazing part of the world that Liesa had never seen before.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (36:32)
As a PhD student, Liesa was in a cohort in her department with many other great students. She remembers having fun talking with people during their daily morning, lunch, and afternoon coffee breaks. It was nice to always know where you could find people gathering at different times of the day. At Pfizer, they celebrate milestones and successes by gathering everyone together and sharing the story of how they got there. It is important for them to recognize the roles played by all the people who contributed to the success of a project.
Advice For Us All (40:47)
When it comes to collaboration, it’s not all about you. Also, it can be easy to get lost working in industry. It is important to make sure you have something to show for the work that you do. Even if a project is not going to move forward into becoming a product, you may be able to publish the research that went into it. Doing this has helped prepare Liesa to tell the story of her work. It is important to understand what you’re good at, be ready to bring it to the table, and let people know how you can help.
Annaliesa has over 20 years of pharmaceutical research experience and is currently the Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer for Bacterial Research, within the Vaccine Research and Development Unit at Pfizer Inc. Her responsibilities include infectious disease vaccine research and development, surveillance, and assessment of the immunopathology of bacterial colonisation and disease. Liesa’s experience includes leadership roles for bacterial vaccine programmes directed at the prevention of diseases due to Neisseria meningitidis, Staphylococcus aureus, and Clostridium difficile. In these roles, she has made substantial contributions to vaccine antigen discovery, preclinical proof of concept, clinical proof of concept, and recently the licensure of the N. meningitidis serogroup B vaccine Trumenba®. Prior to joining Pfizer, Liesa worked at Merck Research Laboratories, where she founded Merck’s prokaryotic bio-combinatorial engineering laboratory and initiated a bacterial vaccine programme at Merck in 2000. In 2007, Liesa joined Wyeth in Pearl River, NY, to direct bacterial vaccine research efforts in the Early Phase Vaccine Programs group. With the acquisition of Wyeth by Pfizer in 2009, Liesa and her team continued in their same role within the Vaccine Research and Development Unit.
Photo Credit: Jean Terman Photography