A molecular biochemist by training, AbbVie neuroscientist Eric Karran leads a team of 210 scientists who are dedicated to finding a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Karran believes in “embracing the unknown,” an ethos that informs how his team approaches Alzheimer’s research, which remains one of the greatest neurological puzzles in the medical world.
It has been so challenging to find effective therapies that many other companies have abandoned their drug discovery projects. Yet Karran and his team keep searching — relentlessly pushing past the unknowns toward a cure. We spoke to Karran about moments that shaped his career and what the future holds for neuroscience.
Epic: How does AbbVie shape the way you approach your research?
Eric Karran: They call what we do ‘discovery’ for a reason, because we do stuff no one else has done before. It’s difficult to predict how and when innovation will come. As a leader, I try to create the circumstances where my team can flourish, where their ideas can be tested. I’m very open — in fact, I like it when my team is able to say to me, “Eric, you’re wrong on this and I’ll tell you why.”
If you employ smart people, it doesn’t make sense to tell them what to do. There’s tremendous democracy in terms of coming up with an idea and they are judged on their merit: to do this we ensure our organization communicatives without hierarchy, so no one feels that their idea isn’t valued as much as someone else’s.
Can you tell us about what you and the AbbVie team are currently working on?
We focus really on two main diseases, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. What we realized is that there are some common features to these diseases, especially in the manner in which pathological proteins are able to spread through the brain. Essentially, in these diseases neurons, the cells in your brain that do the thinking for you, die, and then ultimately that manifests itself in a loss of cognitive function. We are focused on those diseases. We’re not giving up.
Was there ever a crucible moment in your career that shaped the way you approach your work?
I had an interesting situation where I was collaborating with an academic leader, or hoping to. I came to Alzheimer’s based on my understanding of the fundamental genetics and biochemistry: the proteins in the cells and how they interacted. I thought I knew quite a bit. I was discussing these concepts with the academic, with my entire senior leadership team in the room too. He smiled to himself and then said, “Eric, you are a really bright guy, but you actually know nothing about Alzheimer’s disease.”
I went away and then read the literature more broadly: how it affects patients, the neuropathology, the cognitive effects. That really gave me insight into what it must be like to suffer the disease in a way that no amount of clinical papers would. Subsequently, this really helped me guide the research that I was doing.
What’s on the horizon for your neuroscience work at AbbVie?
We’re really going to take advantage of the foundations we’ve laid these last past five years. It takes time to get things right in science, and we’ve got some incredibly innovative approaches. I want to get those into the clinic to be tested and hopefully they will provide new therapies for patients. That’s the next phase for us, putting more of what we’re doing toward the patient in clinical trials.