Helping Patients through Drug Discovery

Amgen and Let’s Talk Science

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Learn how researchers from Amgen are developing new drugs for cancer.

As a scientist working for Amgen, a large pharmaceutical company, I work in the area of drug discovery. I work with a large team who are all focused on understanding the kinds of therapies patients need. We then do research to try and find answers. I guess you could say we help invent new medicines.

My team and I work at the very first stage of the drug discovery process. We start doing research once someone has an idea for a drug. Or even just a potential idea.

The process of developing a drug takes a very long time. And it starts in labs like mine, located in British Columbia. We investigate many kinds of therapies in our lab. We focus mostly on developing drugs to treat cancer.

Closeup of prostate cancer cells
Microscopic image of prostate cancer cells (Source: Amgen. Used with permission).

What we do is look at what different molecules do to cancer. Some molecules might block a specific action, like the growth of cancer cells. Other molecules might stimulate a cellular processes that can affect a health benefit, such as, strengthening bones. And others yet can cause a person’s immune system to do something else entirely. It all depends on characteristics of the molecules and how they are engineered. As we work with different molecules, we think about how we want them to respond to different kinds of cancer.

Another thing we spend a lot of time thinking about is the human genome. A genome is the complete set of genetic instructions for an organism. Each genome contains all of the information to build that organism. It also includes all of the instructions to allow it to grow and develop. If we can understand the genetic makeup of a tumour, we can understand more about how it behaves. It’s as if each kind of tumour has a secret set of instructions that we need to decode.

Once we have an idea how a tumour behaves, we can begin to think about how we can change the tumour’s behaviour. The more information we have about each kind of tumour, the better we can make our therapies.

With advances in technology, scientists now have access to large amounts of data. This data helps us build what we call tumour profiles. Tumour profiling involves testing a person’s tumor to learn more about it. When we combine what we know about a specific tumour with our knowledge of cancer in general, we can design new medicines. These personalized treatments can have a positive impact on a patient's health. Tumour profiling is one reason to have good data analysis skills. Working with data is, and will continue to be, an important part of discovering new therapies.

Data also plays a big role in another area we work in called immuno-oncology. When a tumour exists in the body, it can often be invisible to the immune system. This is a problem. Our immune system cannot attack a tumour unless it knows the tumour is there. This is where we step in. We can help the immune system to recognize the tumour. Then the immune system can use its amazing powers to attack and destroy it. In our lab, we are looking at ways to do this. Immuno-oncology is a fairly new area of science, which is exciting for us. It gives our team a chance to try new things and collaborate with other experts. Best of all, it gives us a chance to invent medicines that can really make a difference in a patient's life.

Scientist using a microplate
A scientist working with a microplate (Source: Amgen. Used with permission).


It's important to keep in mind that there is not just one type of cancer. There are many types of cancer, each with its own set of challenges. We work with specialists in many types of cancer. Their knowledge helps us to see how we might design a molecule that can stop a specific tumour. Together, we can start to map out how we would go about developing a medicine. We think about what the medicine should do and how best to get there.

One of the super cool things we’ve been able to do is to “miniaturize” our drug discovery technologies. In other words, make our technologies smaller. How much smaller? We're talking the size of a single cell. Our group has pioneered the use of single-cell technologies. These technologies allow us to do tests on single cells which allows us to run huge numbers of tests in parallel. This lets us test a molecule or drug much more quickly than before. With quicker tests done at a larger scale we can increase our chances of finding molecules that will become new medicines.

Single-cell nanochip plate
Exploded view of a nanochip, a type of single-cell technology (Source: Amgen. Used with permission).

This brings us back to the importance of data and there is a lot of it!. Large amounts of data are gathered in our lab through these tests. This helps us predict what a drug might do. We use many analysis and visualization software tools to look at this data which allows us to keep track of the potential benefits and issues with each drug.

For the discovery of every new drug, there is a huge team of scientists working behind the scenes. You may never see us, but we are there. Our job is to use new science, new technologies, and lots of data to find answers. We are driven to develop medicines that battle diseases like cancer and help as many people as we can.

Let’s Talk Science appreciates the work and contributions of Chad King and Amgen in the development of this Backgrounder.


Amgen Canada
Amgen Canada logo

About Amgen Canada
As a leader in innovation, Amgen Canada understands the value of science. With main operations located in Mississauga, Ontario’s vibrant biomedical cluster, and its research facility in Burnaby, B.C., Amgen Canada has been an important contributor to advancements in science and innovation in Canada since 1991. The company contributes to the development of new therapies and new uses for existing medicines in partnership with many of Canada’s leading healthcare, academic, research, government and patient organizations. To learn more about Amgen Canada, visit



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Tang, X., Huang, Y., Lei, J. et al. The single-cell sequencing: new developments and medical applications. Cell Biosci 9, 53 (2019). DOI: 10.1002/bit.27024