Adventures in Biotech

The best-laid plans may often go awry, but for millions of people with rheumatoid arthritis, Patricia Beckmann’s winding path to success has made a huge difference

By Carolyn Shea

Patricia Beckmann ’78 enrolled in Evergreen wanting to become a Montessori teacher. By the time she graduated, however—with a degree in biology, chemistry and art—she was on a completely different trajectory. 

Today, she is a prominent scientist in the cutting-edge field of biotechnology and the head of one of Oregon’s three signature research centers.  

The funny thing is that Beckmann “flunked out of biology in high school,” as she puts it. Granted, it was AP biology, and she didn’t pass because she was homebound with a long illness—not because of some academic shortcoming. Even so, she says, “My father used to tease me a lot about that given where I went.”

Patricia Beckmann

Photo by Tyler Brain.

Beckmann’s achievements include a doctorate in biochemistry and pharmacology; postdoctoral studies as a Fulbright Scholar at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Studies in Uppsala, Sweden, and as a visiting scientist at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.; and a 25-year career that has spanned many disciplines in the relatively young biotech industry: research, venture capital, intellectual property law, entrepreneurship and state officialdom. She holds more than 40 patents for her scientific discoveries and has published dozens of peer-reviewed papers.

Her biggest claim to fame is that she is among the inventors of the blockbuster rheumatoid arthritis drug etanercept—trade named Enbrel—which was developed while she was working at Seattle-based Immunex, her first post-postdoc job. 

Immunex—now part of Amgen—was in the vanguard of the biopharmaceutical revolution. Focused on generating drugs to treat immune-system disorders, it was known for its irreverent culture, which encouraged scientists to take risks in the lab, even if they might fail. According to Beckmann, she “got a lot of grief” from her NCI colleagues in 1988, when she decided to “join this crazy biotech startup. That was considered the dark side then,” she says. “They didn’t understand that wherever I was able to apply my expertise, I wanted to make a difference. What I want to do is create drugs and get them on the market to help people.” At Immunex this was possible. 

Beckmann’s turnabout from aspiring Montessori educator to altruistic biotech leader began at Evergreen, where an emergency medical services internship and training as an EMT with Olympia’s McLane Fire Department sparked an interest in exploring the medical field. 

She spent the summer after her freshman year working on an ambulance in Northfield, Ill., close to her Chicago-area hometown of Winnetka, and when she returned to campus in the fall, she enrolled in the Foundations of Science program. This stoked her interest in going further, in coming up with a project using the college’s scanning electron microscope to take pictures of bacteriophage infecting E. coli bacteria and in doing an individual study contract in chemistry. “I learned how to get up in front of people, something I was scared to do, and derive equations,” she says. “I learned to think on my feet.”

Her career choice was also motivated by losing her mother to cancer when Beckmann was 8 years old, something she says she didn’t realize until she was interviewed for the Fulbright fellowship at the Ludwig Institute while completing her Ph.D. at the University of Arizona. When asked why she wanted the position, she answered, “My mom died from cancer, that’s why.” Before then, she says, “I didn’t understand it. I didn’t even know that that was probably seminal in leading me in the direction I was going.” 

As a scientist at Immunex, Beckmann immersed herself in numerous research projects, including an investigation of tumor necrosis factor receptors (TNFRs). Located on a cell’s surface membrane, these receptors intercept harmful tumor-necrosis factor (TNF) proteins and prevent them from damaging cells.

Beckmann’s work identifying TNFRs was crucial in the development of Enbrel, the first in a new class of drugs called TNF inhibitors, which are prescribed for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. A chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissue, causing inflammation of the joints, RA affects more than a million people in the U.S. alone. Enbrel works with the immune system by blocking the action of TNFs, which cause the inflammation. Approved by the FDA in 1998, the product is forecast to become the world’s third-best selling drug with global sales of $8 billion in 2014.

In 2001, Beckmann shared the Intellectual Property Owners Association National Inventor of the Year award with her co-inventors at Immunex for their work on Enbrel. 

Beckmann left Immunex in 1993, after the birth of her third child. This move proved advantageous because it gave her the chance to broaden her experience beyond the laboratory. Her next ventures included work for a San Diego-based patent law firm and her own biotech startup, which stalled from lack of funding. She was later rehired by Immunex to work in the legal department and as a scientific liaison in research administration.

By the early 2000s, Beckmann was managing biotech investments for Vulcan Capital, the investment vehicle for Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. “That was like an experiential MBA,” she says.

”You learned from experience more than from books, much like Evergreen.”
— Patricia Beckmann

This was followed by a stint as a Kauffman Fellow at the Accelerator Corporation, a Seattle investment firm and biotech incubator. She was also the founding chief scientist of Homestead Clinical, an Accelerator-backed startup focused on the development of diagnostic biomarkers for oncology and other disease indications. 

In 2008, Beckmann was appointed president and executive director of the Oregon Translational Research and Drug Development Institute, a state initiative to promote regional economic development by fostering collaboration between Oregon universities and biotech entrepreneurs. Oregon has been called a “flyover state” because venture capitalists go from California to Washington to invest in startups, particularly in the bioscience sector. Beckmann and her organization intend to change this.

Also known as OTRADI, the institute assists university researchers in the state in translating their biological ideas into new medical products. It can validate research and speed up the process of getting drugs on the market. It provides investigators with access to tools that were previously unavailable or prohibitively expensive, offering a laboratory-based program with state-of-the-art instruments and technicians who can rapidly determine the potential of different compounds to treat targeted diseases. OTRADI’s lab is capable of testing more than 10,000 chemicals a day for drug-like activity. The center is also amassing a “library” of thousands of natural and synthetic compounds for screening. 

Last year, with Oregon’s other signature research centers (ONAMI and Oregon BEST), OTRADI was awarded $1 million in the i6 Challenge, a new federal competition to identify the nation’s best ideas for technology commercialization and entrepreneurship.

From her office in Portland, Beckmann makes use of her diverse background in science and business to lead the charge in transforming the state into a hub of bioscience innovation. And yet, there’s still a little of the would-be educator at work in what she’s doing. “I’m mentoring others, helping them innovate and avoid the pitfalls in getting a product out to help people more rapidly,” she says. “It gets back to my desire to be a Montessori teacher: I like to teach.”