Discovery Chemist Aims to Drug the Undruggable

Fueled by coffee, Jason Zbieg explores strategies to create new medicines faster
Industry Matters Newsletter

ByLouisa Dalton, special to C&EN

Jason Zbieg admits he has a competitive streak. It showed up in wrestling and baseball during his New Jersey childhood, and now he’s an avid golfer. “I just want to get as good as I possibly can in anything I do.” That same drive infiltrates Zbieg’s work discovering new pathways to medicines at Genentech.

Ever since high school, Zbieg has been curious about how medications work in the body. Two undergraduate internships at Pfizer opened his eyes to small-molecule discovery and synthesis, and Zbieg focused his graduate studies on organic chemistry and catalysis. After a postdoc and a short stint at Amgen, Zbieg joined Genentech in 2014. His first project led to a patent on a selective estrogen receptor degrader that binds to and alters the estrogen receptor. It is in Phase I clinical trials for treating breast cancer. 

Zbieg now leads international teams of scientists in designing molecules that influence novel biological pathways. He is passionate about finding new ways to affect pathways that have been considered undruggable. “I prefer the term not drugged yet,” Zbieg says. “As a medicinal chemist, it is my job to figure out a way—perhaps by using degrader platforms, covalent-type strategies, or mRNA technologies. The real question is how. That's the space I like to play in.”

What is your favorite molecule?

Caffeine, for sure.

Who is your hero?

People who serve in our military. I come from an immigrant family—my mom emigrated from Poland—and anybody who took that time out of their life is a hero for me.

What is your morning routine?

I just got a new puppy. My wife and I aren’t really morning people, so we take turns playing with the puppy early in the morning. And then I make a very good cup of coffee. 

What kind of puppy?

A fox red lab. Her name is Queso. My wife and I met in Texas and we love Tex-Mex cuisine.

What can't you live without in the lab?

Thin-layer chromatography plates. I'm a big believer that everybody should TLC all their reactions and monitor them by TLC before they jump to the mass spec.

A lot of scientists you work with are in China. Do you get to travel to meet them?

Yes. Before I started this job, I had never been to Shanghai. I think it's an amazing, wonderful place. Working at this company has opened up my eyes globally. 

What are you known for among your coworkers?

That I am from New Jersey, for better or worse.

How do you describe what you do at a cocktail party?

I run into this question all the time. What I do is like using an Erector Set to build a molecule, except when I finally build it, I can't actually see it. So I take it to an MRI-type machine to get a spectrum of what I built, and I’m able to interpret that.

What do you do to relax?

Golf, mainly. I go to the beach almost every weekend as well.

What are you reading?

I do a lot of work reading. Every day, I read JACS ASAP, Endpoints News, FierceBiotech, FiercePharma, and In the Pipeline. On Fridays, I read Science magazine. I don't really read for pleasure. At my house at night, there is a constant loop of reality television.

Louisa Dalton is a freelance contributor to Chemical & Engineering News, the newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society. This interview was edited for length and clarity.