In the “Magnified” series, we take a closer look at the life experiences & career journeys that have shaped AbbVie’s leaders. Meet Jonathon Sedgwick who recently joined AbbVie as vice president and global head of discovery research. Jonathon has always been curious and developed his passion for science at a young age when he was inspired by a picture book on the story of penicillin. That passion led him to a career that would take him all over the world shaping his belief that great science is happening everywhere
AbbVie is an outstanding biopharma company with a bright future ahead, so the idea of leading the discovery research organization was an exciting challenge and a great opportunity. After meeting with AbbVie leadership, I came away with a strong affirmation of the importance of science and research to the company’s future and even more importantly, that people at AbbVie were genuinely committed to improving the lives of patients through innovation in drug discovery. This type of commitment is very motivating for me as a scientist and leader.
It taught me that great science is happening everywhere. It also taught me to embrace and appreciate different cultures. My career has taken me all over the world, including Australia, where I’m originally from, the U.S., U.K., Germany, and Singapore. When you live in a new place, things are unfamiliar, so you learn to listen, be patient and humble. You also learn to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. These lessons have been vital to my ability to lead diverse teams, solve problems and find new opportunities.
My philosophy has been the same throughout my career. I believe that, initially at least, you should follow your gut instinct on what is important and likely to make a difference. A good example of this was the initial work on the cytokine IL-23 my colleagues and I did at DNAX in the 90s. We knew almost nothing, but the initial activity data and its expression pattern felt unique. I put quite a large biology team on it and that turned out well, spawning the development of many medicines for inflammatory diseases, though of course not everything works out like that. After these ‘gold nuggets’ are uncovered, it takes scientific and clinical drug hunters with a knack for seeing the path to a potential new drug, to turn the early science into a medicine.
In discovery research, we operate at the forefront, where research is unpredictable and there are many unknowns. In general, people don’t understand how hard it is because the reality is we know so little when we start something new. The best scientists are humble because they recognize their limitations and do good experiments to understand more rather than assume they know it all.
People also don’t realize how long it takes for a discovery to become a medicine. It’s an arduous process of trial and error that can take many years. However, it’s the curiosity for the unknown and thirst for knowledge that excites and drives us.
At an early age, I was curious and intrigued by books on science. I was raised in a tiny ‘wheat-belt town’ in Western Australia where my dad had a small news agency business. We sold books and other things, so there was always something to read. One of the first books I remember poring over was a picture book on the story of penicillin. While Britain’s Alexander Fleming is often credited with discovering penicillin, it was Howard Florey, an Australian pathologist, who led the team in his labs at the University of Oxford that transformed Fleming’s observations into the reality of penicillin as a purified, defined, potent and safe antibiotic. Growing up in Australia, Florey was often highlighted for his contributions, and, of course, was my hero in science.
My interest in science as a child naturally paved the way for my research career. In a way, everything came full circle when I completed my post-doctoral training at Oxford’s Sir William Dunn School of Pathology which is where Florey had his labs. Some retired members of Florey’s team were still floating around there, like Norman Heatley who came up with the idea to use hospital bed pans to culture the first penicillin in large amounts. It was war time – there was nothing else! It was just surreal because I idolized these scientists and was now at the same school as them.
Everything has really come full circle, hasn’t it? The plaque commemorating Abbott’s contributions to the development of penicillin is right outside my office at AbbVie. I’m honored and committed to building on this heritage so we can continue making new discoveries and medicines.
In addition to recruiting talent and developing a strong leadership team, my role as head of discovery research is to see the big picture. I help to define who we are and why we matter, and to help decide our research directions and what we want to achieve. And from that, determine what strategies to implement to deliver a stream of innovative drug candidates into clinical testing. I believe the best way to get there is, mostly, to lead the organization from the side. It is not my job to tell people how to get there, but to make sure everyone is moving forward together in the same direction and that they know what to aim for.
The discovery and development of penicillin was a milestone in twentieth century pharmaceutical chemistry. Abbott was one of five American pharmaceutical companies that contributed to penicillin production research during WWII and was one of the first companies to begin large-scale production of the antibiotic. In 1999, Abbott received a plaque commemorating its contributions from the American Chemical Society.