Meet Our CMO – Dr. Sarah Noonberg

Dr. Sarah Noonberg joined Prothena as our Chief Medical Officer on May 16, 2017. We took an opportunity to sit down with her for a Q&A to learn about her interest and experience in rare diseases, and what attracted her to Prothena.

In May 2017, Prothena welcomed a new Chief Medical Officer, Sarah Noonberg, M.D., Ph.D. The physician-scientist, based out of Prothena’s South San Francisco R&D offices, most recently led global clinical development at BioMarin Pharmaceutical and previously held senior development positions at Medivation Inc. We sat down with Dr. Noonberg to learn more about her passion for rare diseases, why she chose to join the Prothena team, and what she hopes to accomplish in her new role.

Making a switch to a new company is always a huge decision, especially when you already have a job that you find rewarding. What led you to your new role at Prothena?

There are many reasons, but probably the single most important one is the deep scientific expertise of the team here. Prothena’s pipeline grew out of a team of scientists who have been working together and developing key insights in protein misfolding and cell adhesion over many years. The quality of the science, the breadth of the pipeline, and the close collaboration between the research and development arms of the company were very appealing to me. It is rare to find such a strong science-driven portfolio of first-in-class compounds at a small biotech company. I look forward to help translate their expertise into clinical programs for transformative new therapies.

One thing many people don’t know about you is that you also work part-time as a hospitalist—and you have done so for 14 years now. What is a hospitalist, and how does that influence your work at Prothena?

A hospitalist is a physician who works exclusively within a hospital setting. It’s a piece of my life that’s very important to me, and has become a part of who I am. Interacting with patients and families during an intense period of illness or injury is a very intimate experience; these types of interactions inspire me personally but have also helped me grow professionally. Managing acutely ill patients forces you to think quickly, make important decisions, and be comfortable with rapidly changing priorities and unexpected situations. So many of those skills translate into work in the biotech industry, particularly when managing a portfolio of dynamic clinical programs.

Another enduring passion of yours is working on therapies for rare diseases, such as what you’re now doing with AL amyloidosis, the indication for Prothena’s lead drug candidate. How did this interest develop?

Early on in my career I worked for several years on a program in Huntington’s disease. Although the program was not successful, the experience was so positive that I became passionate about drug development for rare diseases. When data are scarce and there are no roadmaps to follow, you form close partnerships with treating physicians and patient advocacy groups to understand what is clinically meaningful to patients and how best to measure it. Working in rare diseases is different from a therapeutic area like oncology where the development path often follows a very clear template. Development of new therapies in the rare disease space requires comfort with charting new territory as a program advances. At Prothena, we are charting new scientific pathways in several diseases – rare and otherwise. These challenges are a huge draw for me.

What differentiates Prothena from other companies in biotechnology?

From my perspective, it’s the culture. What became clear to me very quickly was the importance of staying true to the company’s core values. The core values aren’t just words on the website; people across the organization really live by them. The desire to always maintain a patient-first mentality is a strong aspect of the culture. One of the other core values here, which I’ve never seen explicitly expressed anywhere else, is humor. I interpret this value as the joy you take in your work and share with others. We work incredibly hard, but we also enjoy one another and the work we do. Even the structure of the office promotes collaboration and creativity as well as relaxation at the end of the day. Developing new drugs for devastating diseases is not easy. You need to have joy and humor in the culture to offset the seriousness of the work.

What program at Prothena most excites you?

That’s like asking me which of my children I love best! It’s wonderful that Prothena’s four programs are in very different stages of development. I love working on neurodegenerative diseases, and our Parkinson’s program is very exciting and cutting edge so I feel very connected to this program. Our AL Amyloidosis program has some big inflection points coming up for a truly devastating disease, so it’s hard to not be excited about the potential there. PRX003 could be a whole new branch sprouting for Prothena, and PRX004 is such a scientifically impressive program in another area of tremendous unmet medical need. Success in any one of these programs will be transformative for patients and the company.

What is one thing that you want people to know about Prothena that they may not otherwise be aware of?

For most of my career, Prothena was on my radar because of its science. However, since press releases from the company always started with “Dublin, Ireland,” I had no idea that the company had a significant presence in the Bay Area. The corporate headquarters are in Dublin, but Prothena is a truly global organization. Our R&D organization is largely in South San Francisco, and we now have operations in Switzerland as well. Our culture is pervasive at each of our locations; we’re all working together on a common goal for patients.