Coug brings skills to biotech leader Genentech

Alum, Jessica Klein, wearing a College of Veterinary Medicine shirt and standing in front of a Genentech sign.

Jessica Klein is a scientist at one of the largest biotechnology companies in the West, and if ever a doubt, she knows she can lean on skills learned and relationships built at Washington State University.

Klein (PhD ‘18), a product of the Immunology and Infectious Diseases program at WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, uses the latest processes and technology to test new drugs developed by the biotech giant, Genentech.

The company is dedicated to pursuing groundbreaking science to discover and develop medicines for people with serious and life-threatening diseases, but they must be vetted first.

Using different engineered in vitro modeling systems, Klein and the Complex in vitro Systems team in Safety Assessment at Genentech establish, validate and implement advanced tissue culturing platforms (such as microphysiological systems and organoids) to assess product safety, disposition and efficacy before they move deeper into the clinical trial process.

She didn’t know it back when, but many of those same tools and experiences she uses every day were picked up as a graduate student in associate professor Leigh Knodler’s lab at WSU, tucked inside the Paul G. Allen School for Global Health.

It’s where she was introduced to tissue culture – the process of cultivating fragments of plant or animal tissue in an artificial environment to model that tissue system and its function. She was also introduced to another area of research that she is still in now – gastrointestinal biology.

At WSU, Klein’s work involved understanding how Salmonella interacts with intestinal epithelial cells. Klein published several tissue culture-based protocols for assaying these interactions, which paved the way for her thesis examining how Salmonella modulates its intracellular lifecycle within the intestinal epithelium. She then went on to complete a postdoctoral research fellowship at Stanford University, where she began using gastrointestinal epithelium-derived tissue fragments grown in 3D (organoids) to study how a gastric cancer-causing bacterium interacts with its human host. Modeling gastrointestinal biology using organoids is now her main focus at Genentech.

“While the kind of tissue culture models I used at WSU are not considered as complex as what I work on now, those foundational principles and basic tissue culture practices are what enabled me to learn how to use these newer models and why I ended up in a group that standardizes and develops these models for use in drug development and toxicology/safety assessment at Genentech,” Klein said.

She said the flexibility of WSU’s Immunology and Infectious Diseases program was critical to finding her passion.

“A lot of times, when you go to grad school, you’re kind of married to one specific topic. That’s definitely not the case with the Immunology and Infectious Diseases program,” she said. “I was able to explore a lot of things that have ultimately helped me figure out what I wanted to do with my career.”

During her time in the program, Klein spent time in Sacramento and Washington D.C. learning to develop and apply One Health approaches to local policy for environmental and health-related issues thanks to the program’s unique roots in global health and veterinary medicine.

Like many in science, Klein’s work at Genentech is quite different than what it was during her time at WSU.

“At the time, I felt that I needed that PhD for my career, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” Klein said.

Now, Klein’s moved away from identifying new drug targets at WSU, to improving safety assessment capabilities for drug candidates at Genentech. She also collaborates with the company’s various infectious disease and toxicology groups and teaches them how to use and integrate advanced gastrointestinal tissue culture models in research and development.

“Every day I’m drawing on things that I learned back at WSU,” she said.

Klein said she knows she can draw back on the relationships too.

“I definitely have a lot of lifelong friends that I still keep in touch with, and I think that I always will keep in touch with, and that’s not just people who were in my lab directly, but other people that I met in the IID program,” she said.

She also plans to keep in close touch with Knodler.

“Leigh is a fantastic scientist,” Klein said. “She basically taught me everything I know about how to be a good scientist. Your graduate training is a huge transition point in your career. So it’s important to have that sort of support. She absolutely nailed that for me.”