Shanique Borteley Alabi, PhD grew up in both the U.S. and Ghana. Shanique was fascinated by science from an early age, which lead to her pursuing a PhD in Pharmacology at Yale. During her graduate studies she earned funding through the prestigious Gilliam Fellowship at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. This allowed her to actively pursue her work as a chemical biologist and her deep interest in utilizing innovative tools to advance the understanding and treatment of disease. Outside of the lab at Yale, she interned with a venture capital firm Canaan Ventures, where she performed deep dives in varied fields including immunology, cancer biology, and metabolism.
Shanique is currently employed as a scientist at Boston-based Monte Rosa Therapeutics, a biotech developing next-generation small molecule protein degraders to treat cancer and other diseases. She is highly collaborative, and she has research experience in biochemical and cellular-based evaluation of small molecule drugs. Shanique has a strong interest in targeted protein degradation – PROTACs and molecular glues – and her career goal is to lead drug discovery for a company.
Can you tell us a little about your childhood and what sparked your interest in chemical science?
My paternal grandfather established a pharmacy in Accra, Ghana in the 1960s. Since then, it has been the family business. Growing up, I enjoyed spending time in the pharmacy on the weekends and helping at the register. Since then, I’ve had a fascination with therapeutics – how they are developed, and how they work. This early experience, tied with my strong interest in biology and chemistry, led me to a career in chemical biology.
Today, I am passionate about innovative chemical tools that aid in the understanding of human biology and treatment of disease.
While at Yale, you worked with chemical biologist Craig Crews and helped design a degrader that targets mutant forms of BRAF, a protein implicated in many cancers. Can you expand on the importance of that?
BRAF is a well characterized proto-oncogene (a gene involved in normal cell growth) but it is mutated in several cancers. While several mutations have been identified that drive oncogenesis, only one BRAF mutant has been successfully drugged. My work with Craig aimed to use a PROTAC mechanism of action to access currently undrugged mutants of BRAF.
Using this type of targeted protein degradation, we show successful targeting of all three classes of BRAF mutants and demonstrate efficacy in decreasing tumor growth in vivo. Furthermore, our PROTAC spares WT (wild type) BRAF, allowing for a decreased chance of toxicity. This work strongly highlights the potential of the PROTAC technology.
Can you describe your work with molecular glues and what inspired you to switch your research to study their impact on difficult-to-drug proteins?
After my PhD, I wanted to remain in the field of targeted protein degradation while also taking on a new challenge. Pivoting to molecular glue degraders fit that bill. Here at Monte Rosa, I am working with a team of brilliant scientists to use molecular glue degraders (MGDs) to selectively eliminate therapeutically relevant proteins for a broad range of indications with significant unmet medical need. My work here involves using a multidisciplinary approach to gain an understanding of the therapeutic potential of molecular glues. Thus far, my time here has been fruitful, and I am very excited about the future of this technology.
Has your university internship at a venture capital firm impacted the way you approach your scientific work?
My Yale-Canaan internship has been integral to my interest in biotech and heavily shapes how I view the space. I had the chance to work closely with and learn from two phenomenal scientists/venture capitalists, Colleen Cufforo and Tim Shannon. I was exposed to how companies are evaluated, how to assess a competitive landscape, and how to critically evaluate a company’s data room. Having this insight has taught me how to identify the crucial experiments needed to advance a project and to spot discrepancies in logical threads.
Can you describe the collaborative mindset needed to work in a fast-paced bio lab and how you’ve been able to influence the direction taken by research teams? Are there mentors you would like to acknowledge/thank?
Collaboration is a vital part of chemical biology, and especially so in the field of targeted protein degradation where many of the tenets of the technology are still being established. For a project to progress, it is essential that all divisions work in tandem and are optimally utilized. This requires transparency, trust, and mutual respect of all scientists involved. I actively foster these tenets as part of my work. I would like to acknowledge my former academic advisors, Avner Schlessinger and Craig Crews, and my mentors at Monte Rosa, Dominico Vigil, and Sharon Townson, who have been instrumental in modeling collaborative team building.
What advice would you offer to students hoping to pursue a STEM career?
My advice to students is to remain curious and never stop asking questions. It can be easy to doubt yourself and consider any questions you may have as “silly,” but your pursuit in addressing these questions will edify not only your own knowledge, but the scientific communities as well. In addition, by focusing on your curiosity you will be able to maintain passion for science no matter what bumps (e.g. rough classes, bad test results) may come along the way. You can do this!
This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.
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