5 Questions with Akunna Iheanacho, Ph.D., Scientific Director, Texcell North America, Inc.

“5 Questions With…” is a weekly BioBuzz series where we reach out to interesting people in the BioHealth Capital Region to share a little about themselves, their work, and maybe something completely unrelated. March is WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH and BioBuzz will celebrate by featuring Women in the BioHealth industry all month, especially in “5 Questions With…”. This week we welcome Akunna Iheanacho, Ph.D., Scientific Director at Texcell North America, Inc.

Akunna Iheanacho, Ph.D., is the Scientific Director at Texcell North America, Inc., where she provides technical and scientific direction for novel assay development, virus purification efforts, and viral safety testing. She also serves as a Study Director for viral clearance studies. She is a subject matter expert with broad biotechnology experience and expertise in areas that include process development for large-scale cGMP manufacture of vaccines, AAV gene therapies, and biopharmaceutical purification.

Before joining Texcell, Dr. Iheanacho was a Senior Scientist at Paragon Bioservices (now Catalent). While there, she made significant contributions in transitioning projects from basic science discovery to cGMP-ready processes by establishing critical process parameters and quality attributes for biologics and reagents for diagnostics. Dr. Iheanacho received her Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, M.S. in Chemistry from the University of Virginia, and B.S. in Biology from Oakwood University in Huntsville, AL.

1. Please introduce yourself to our audience with a look back at your education and career.

My graduate studies focused on the structural and functional characterization of proteins involved in cell signaling pathways that are dysregulated in cancer or type II diabetes. Protein-protein interactions were evaluated with the end goal of utilizing structure-based drug design to assist in the development of more targeted therapies. These skills enabled me to answer complex scientific questions using a multidisciplinary approach.

Among the skills I learned was the importance of communicating key concepts to diverse audiences. I pursued a career in industry to extend my focus beyond basic science by translating scientific discoveries into new medical products and technologies that had the potential to improve patient outcomes and public health.

While at Catalent, I successfully developed processes for the manufacture of biopharmaceutical products. I became familiar with many of the challenges and potential pitfalls associated with manufacturing biologics. These complex drug substances require rigorous control of source materials and possess structures that are often less easily characterized than small molecules. There is a need for improved tools and models to predict and assess risk for these promising new medical therapies.

I believed that my skills and knowledge base would assist me in conducting research that serves as an effective scientific basis for shaping regulatory decisions. I wanted to perform research that bridged the gap between scientific discovery and the delivery of new products to market and was recruited by Texcell North America to serve as Director of Research and Development. In my more recent role as Scientific Director, I continue to support global innovations that have the potential to impact public health.

2. You are currently the Scientific Director at Texcell in Frederick. What can you tell us about your role and the work Texcell does in the BioHealth Capital Region?

Texcell North America is the U.S. headquarters of a growing global contract research organization (CRO). I provide scientific oversight and technical direction for all programs and business units. We do not produce biopharmaceutical products ourselves, but rather, we support biopharmaceutical manufacturers with contract testing services, including viral clearance, biosafety testing, and cell banking.

These critical services are typically outsourced to CROs like Texcell, and they permit our customers to ensure the safety of their products to meet regulatory requirements. Our customers come to rely on us not only for our studies’ scientific veracity but also for our collaborative approach.

We pride ourselves on listening, being flexible, and remaining regularly engaged with our customers during a study. While we are not the largest CRO by financial measures, our strength resides in our team’s passion. We genuinely care about our customers’ success – a deeply entwined culture in our company of scientific experts. We think that this caring essence shines through in our work for them. We also believe that this is a primary reason why our customers almost always return to us for follow-on services after their first experience with us.

As a Women In Bio (WIB) member, I am also proud to work for a company that features so many strong women up, down, and across our org chart. From research associates to directors and company officers, Texcell North America has no shortage of talented, intelligent women on our roster. In fact, our company is comprised of 75% women. It is invigorating to be a part of a team that demonstrates that women can power a modern scientific company in the BioHealth Capital Region.

3. As you grow your career, where would you like to see it go?

I want to continue to be an ambassador for science and be able to provide scientific data that informs process decisions, initiatives, and operations. I want to facilitate the development of diagnostic tools and medical treatments that protect against our global health and security threats. In particular, I want to continue to perform research that will accelerate the approval of new medical products and contribute to more efficient regulatory review processes.

When I consider the number of women in C-suite level positions or serving as board members, diversity and inclusion is still a concern even in 2021. For all the women serving in such leadership positions, the number of them that identify as Black/African American, Latinx, or other ethnic or minority groups is even smaller. Ultimately, I envision myself serving at the C-suite level as the Chief Scientific Officer, or Chief Technology Officer, or Chief Executive Officer of an organization that is poised to meet our global community’s needs and builds quality into every product service.

4. Frederick has been a growing part of the BioHealth Capital Region with companies opening locations or expanding. What can you share with us about the ecosystem there and the opportunities to connect with your peers?

There is no doubt that we benefit from our location in the BioHealth Capital Region. Our site in Frederick, MD, is in the heart of the corridor, and we are surrounded locally by other biotech companies such as AstraZeneca, Qiagen, and Lonza. But the ecosystem goes much deeper than that, as the academic and research institute pool of talent from places like the University of Maryland, UMBC, Johns Hopkins, the NIH, and US FDA provides opportunities for research collaboration and information sharing, and recruitment. In fact, the depth of the ecosystem is a core reason why we have decided to expand our facilities locally within the region rather than search for another geographic part of the country.

Before the pandemic, there were also countless opportunities to network in more relaxed settings at functions hosted by companies and professional organizations like WIB within the Frederick area. Although WIB has switched to a virtual format, they continue to be a tremendous resource to me as they advance their mission of promoting careers, leadership, and entrepreneurship for all women in the life sciences.

Their programs and initiatives have helped me broaden my leadership skills, advance professionally, and expand my professional network. Finally, I should give a shout-out to my favorite restaurant in Frederick – a local establishment called The Orchard, which serves amazing fresh, whole foods and caters to all types of diets. While they are temporarily closed due to the pandemic, I cannot wait to visit them later this year.

5. If You Had A Time Machine, Would You Go Back In Time Or Into The Future? Why? What would you do?

If I had a time machine, I would go into the future. We live in such an exciting time, and new discoveries are being made every day. Personalized medicine is now an approach being used to treat cancer and cystic fibrosis. If you had told me 20 years ago that mRNA would be used to create a vaccine, I probably would have laughed at you. I cannot imagine what the biotech sector will look like 50 years or even 15 years from now and what advances will be made in medicine or science and technology as a whole!

Thank you Akunna Iheanacho, Ph.D., Scientific Director at Texcell North America, Inc. for participating in the ‘5 Questions with BioBuzz’ series, and stay tuned for more interviews with others from across the BioHealth Capital Region and beyond.

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