Dr. Ryan Potts is VP of Research and Head of the Induced Proximity Platform at Amgen that works on ways to bring two or more molecules in close proximity to each other to tackle drug targets that are currently considered “undruggable.” He also leads Amgen’s Research & Development Postdoctoral Fellows Program. Ryan received his BS in biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he was awarded his PhD in cellular and molecular biology from UT Southwestern Medical Center. After completing his PhD, Ryan served on the faculty at UT Southwestern Medical Center for eight years before accepting a position on the faculty at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He joined the team at Amgen in 2020. In this interview, he shares more about his life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:23)
Outside of science, Ryan likes to spend quality time with his family and his kids. They enjoy exploring the natural world, hiking, and visiting the nearby Santa Monica Mountains and local beaches. Ryan is also an avid traveler and sports fan.
The Scientific Side (3:42)
Ryan conducts early-stage research to discover new high-impact medicines for serious diseases that have a high unmet medical need. Their work examines biological pathways, drug targets, disease drivers, and new ways to create drugs that have the desired effects. In particular, Ryan is exploring ways to bring two or more molecules together (induced proximity) to impact targets that are difficult to drug.
A Dose of Motivation (4:57)
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” – Dr. Joe Goldstein
What Got You Hooked on Science? (10:28)
When Ryan was two years old, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and the tumor recurred when he was nine years old. This meant that Ryan spent much of his childhood in and out of hospitals and using different treatments, some of which have become lifelong therapies. Being immersed in this medical and scientific environment got him interested in why these kinds of conditions happen, and this was a gateway into thinking about medicine and biomedical research. Ryan attended college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and while there, he had the opportunity to work in the research lab of his pediatric endocrinologist. This was an amazing experience. Ryan started off as a dishwasher and then worked his way up to doing basic experiments in the lab. Though he had entered college thinking he would pursue a career in medicine, this exposure to research changed his career trajectory. After graduating, Ryan worked for a few years as a research technician in the lab of a newly hired faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill, and this gave him a chance to learn how to start a research lab from the ground up. This solidified Ryan’s interest in pursuing a career in academic research, and he enrolled in graduate school at UT Southwestern to get his PhD. Later in his career, Ryan had an unexpected opportunity to transition to industry. This was a major pivot in his career, but his position at Amgen is a unique role that has allowed him to work on really exciting projects in drug discovery.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (25:48)
While working as a research technician at UNC-Chapel Hill, Ryan was studying primary neurons, and this involved a painstaking, multi-day process to collect the neurons, followed by weeks of culturing the samples. The next step was to conduct the experiments with various treatments. Then, the neurons had to be processed to get the data they needed. Ryan had a very ambitious goal of doing a biochemistry experiment, which required a lot of sample material. He was really excited about the project. He worked hard over a period of several weeks to get to the final step of the project, which involved performing a western blot. Ryan had to transfer his sample from a gel to a membrane to probe the sample, and the procedure had to be set up a particular way so the sample would move onto the membrane. After finishing this final step, Ryan was devastated when he realized that he set up this last step wrong, and the sample had moved from the gel to the buffer instead of onto the membrane. There was nothing he could do at that point but start over. Fortunately, Ryan had a supportive advisor, and his spouse is also in science, and they helped him work through this major disappointment.
A Shining Success! (30:07)
Over the last 10-15 years, the thing that Ryan has found to be most rewarding is seeing trainees succeed. Whether it is graduate students, postdocs, or early-career staff scientists, it is wonderful to see their hard work lead to publications and breakthrough discoveries. Ryan is also in charge of the postdoc program at Amgen, and it is really gratifying to see the scientists in the program grow their skills and find the next step in their career paths. This role has allowed him to have an impact on each individual as well as work to advance the science in the field as a whole.
Book Recommendations (32:59)
Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling, The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Most Treasured Travel (34:05)
One of the most memorable places that Ryan has been for science was a trip to China with his wife. They attended conferences there, gave talks at different universities, and saw some of the local sights. Ryan and his wife visited Beijing, Chengdu in Central China, and Xiaomin on the Southeastern coast. The culture and food were remarkable, and Ryan also enjoyed seeing the Forbidden City in Beijing and the panda reserve in Chengdu. Last September, Ryan attended a conference in Croatia, and this was also an outstanding trip. He particularly enjoyed the historic city of Dubrovnik where the Game of Thrones series was filmed.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (36:31)
In Ryan’s lab at UT Southwestern and at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, whenever they published a paper, someone in the group created a funny graphic or image that represented the findings. Ryan kept all of these over the years, and they are still on the wall of his office today. Each image has a connection to a particular individual who worked on the project, and the images remind him of those people. Ryan also had fun during their annual lab retreats. These were great for getting to know people in the group, and the competition often got intense while playing board games together.
Advice For Us All (39:52)
Networking is tremendously important. Get to know as many people as you can because you never know what that will lead to. This has had a major impact on Ryan’s career. Also, follow where the science takes you and explore unexpected observations. These often lead to the most impactful and transformative discoveries that can break open new fields. Don’t be afraid to take risks.
Ryan’s research is focused on tackling drug targets that are currently considered “undruggable.” As lead of Amgen’s Induced Proximity Platform (IPP), Ryan and his team are seeking new therapeutic approaches to target the 85% of proteins and other molecules that are considered undruggable. Instead of having to bind a target and act on it directly, an IPP molecule can bring the target in close proximity to systems in the cell that can modify or degrade that target. These molecules are called multispecifics (since they have more than one target) and have the potential to bind to proteins or RNA inside or outside of cells. One example of this type of molecule is a PROTAC, or proteolysis targeting chimera, which leverages the enzymes that tag unwanted or damaged proteins for destruction by a cellular machine called the proteasome. PROTACs have the ability to destroy a target, then move onto the next target and repeat the process. Conversely, conventional medicines must stay bound to their target to act, which can limit their effect in the body. Outside of work, Ryan likes to watch and play sports, hike, and travel with his wife and two daughters in Thousand Oaks, California.