5 Questions With Luke Williams, Generalist at
American Gene Technologies
“5 Questions With…” is a weekly BioBuzz series where we reach out to interesting people to share a little about themselves, their work, and maybe something completely unrelated. This week we welcome Luke Williams, Generalist at American Gene Technologies.
Luke lived a rather nomadic lifestyle before coming to AGT. As a military kid, he moved every couple of years, and he kept up that trend even after leaving home. His travels have taken all over the world in search of novel things to pique his curiosity. He firmly believes that chasing his curiosity, no matter where it led him, is what brought him to AGT. He has always been interested in the molecular mechanisms of life, with a particular focus on genetic engineering. In a snapshot, he likes to take creative angles on the design process, and he hopes to apply that approach to engineered algae, energy projects, and hopefully one day genetic medicine.
1) Please introduce yourself to our audience by looking back at your education, training, and career.
I always wanted to be a genetic engineer, until I found myself in college. In most undergrad programs, genetic engineering is not a choice, so I’m currently finishing my chemical and biological engineering degree to give myself the foundation necessary to make a meaningful contribution to the field. I began my work at AGT writing articles on the trajectory of biotechnologies, and then transitioned into sales for our COVID-19 PCR testing lab. I am attracted to challenges and getting outside of my comfort zone, which is the mechanism behind my disparate work experience.
I began working manual labor, then moved into engineering internships at WestRock and Johnson & Johnson before landing at AGT. I have high hopes for my career here because of how creative the workstyle is. I don’t perform well in boxes doing repetitive tasks, but here, I have been granted a high degree of freedom to step outside the box and find untapped markets for the COVID-19 PCR testing lab. I also get to develop strategic partnerships with entities who want to support our mission to cure HIV, Cancer, and Phenylketonuria. Anything that helps the company and falls within my skillset, I get to do.
2) Tell us more about your day-to-day work as a generalist at AGT. What excites you the most about the work you do?
I love the fact that each day entails something different. I could be going to a CEO/COO to pitch our COVID-19 PCR lab, I may be a handyman for the lab, I may spend the day finding new businesses to reach out to, or I may spend time teaching my staff some of the lessons I learned about this market through trial and error. I also get to learn from some of the top scientists in the field of gene and cell therapy during my lunch hour, and when 5pm rolls around and businesses stop answering the phone, I can write articles for the company, work on Google ads, or read up on the current state of genetic medicine. I even have an idea for a therapeutic that I can work towards, and in a place like this, it’s entirely possible.
3) Tell me more about AGT103-T – what makes it such a promising therapeutic candidate?
I love this question because it leads into this whole story arc of HIV and viral vectors. So, let’s start with a shocker: HIV has been functionally cured before. There are certain populations of people who carry alleles that render key immune cells unsusceptible to infection by HIV. As an example: a London patient and the Berlin patient had HIV and were also terminally ill with leukemia. As a last-line treatment option for their cancer, their existing immune system was destroyed, and they were given a bone marrow transplant with marrow from a donor that had the alleles I mentioned before.
Bone marrow contains the progenitor cells for the immune system, so when the donor cells reconstituted the immune system in these patients, their new immune cells were impervious to the HIV in the body. These patients were functionally cured of their HIV because even if trace amounts of cells still contained the HIV genome, the immune system was able to hunt and kill the virus and any latently infected cells without being susceptible to being hijacked.
The London and Berlin patients showed an important proof of concept, but bone marrow transplants are not a realistic nor scalable treatment for HIV because the procedure is quite traumatic and extremely risky, hence the reason it’s typically reserved as a last-line treatment for leukemia. We needed to create a way to deliver advantageous genes without risking the life of the patient.
Before we began work on AGT103-T, Sangamo ran a human trial utilizing zinc-finger nucleases to knock out CCR5, the co-receptor that HIV uses to gain entry to the cell, and was able to put one trial participant into durable viral suppression. This showed another important proof of concept, but the low success rate and high cost barred it from commercialization. In comparison to zinc-finger nucleases, the viral vectors that are used to create AGT103-T have a drastically higher transduction efficiency, and their genetic cargo also incorporates extra layers of protection for helper T cells. Informed by previous experiences, AGT103-T has been designed to address previous stumbling blocks, so we are cautiously optimistic that our therapeutic will prove to have a correspondingly high success rate.
Between the story arc of HIV and our preclinical studies that showcased the ability of our modified cells to combat HIV in a petri dish, we are on the edge of our seats waiting for good news from the Phase 1 clinical trial. Currently, the trial participants who have been reviewed by the Data Safety and Monitoring Board have shown no adverse safety events, and if the trend continues, we will quickly progress into the analytic treatment interruption study, in which trial participants will discontinue their use of antiretroviral therapies, and we’ll be able to observe how AGT103-T functions in vivo without conventional HIV medication. If we see the data we’re expecting to see, it’ll be my job to make sure everybody’s shouting it from the rooftops!
4) You were in school for Chemical Engineering before AGT – do you have any advice or words of wisdom for undergraduates who are looking to jump into the world of biotech?
I had a very non-traditional path in higher education, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but I would encourage people to pursue their interests before anything else. I found my coursework to be only distantly related to the work I was able to observe in my engineering internships and CoOp. I certainly lost a bit of faith that the work I was doing in college was relevant or useful, so I began taking courses outside of my major’s curriculum to pursue my interests. It wasn’t the most efficient way to progress academically, but it ended up working out when I came to AGT. Immunology, genetics, and programming are not standard parts of the chemical engineering curriculum, but they have proven to be the most useful courses I took.
In today’s higher education landscape, the cost of college is skyrocketing, and wage growth is stagnant, leaving many people to question their pursuit of higher education. Thankfully, there are many notable companies who are willing to take a chance on people who do not have a degree, from big names like Tesla to exciting startups like AGT. I personally feel a strong obligation to our CEO for giving me a chance even without my bachelor’s degree. It makes me work a lot harder knowing that he believed in me when other employers may not have, and then gave me plenty of freedom to get creative and build our COVID-19 PCR testing business to what it is today.
5) Is there a mentor in your life who has had a tremendous impact on you? Tell us about them.
Our CEO Jeff Galvin, hands down. Jeff taught me how to step up my sales game and showed me the power of unconstrained creativity. As an engineering student, I was pretty outside my element in sales and marketing, but Jeff taught me how to accentuate my talents and recognize my weaknesses in the field so I could improve at an accelerated pace.
Norman Rogers also played a critical role in my growth within AGT by teaching me how our therapeutics work with silky smooth delivery. When you really get down to it, what AGT does is pretty incredible, and explaining it to someone who may not have a background in biology can be a challenge. Having solid fundamentals in theory as well as references to past experiments, tried-and-true analogies, or other language devices makes a huge difference when we explain our therapeutics to investors, our COVID lab partners, or our social media followers.
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Sarah Ellinwood is BioBuzz’s Managing Editor. A scientist by training and a science communicator at heart, Sarah specializes in making complex concepts understandable, engaging, and exciting. She received her Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology with a focus in infectious disease immunology from the University of Maryland and is passionate about all things related to scicomm, peer mentorship, and women in STEM.