Former classmates collaborate on cancer therapies

Brynn Olden and Anthony Amsberry next to eachother.

Brynn Olden, B.S. chemical engineering ’13, and Anthony Amsberry, B.S. bioengineering ’13, had big plans in high school. Olden, in Wilsonville, wrote them down for a Spanish class assignment. In translation, she said — I will be a scientist, cure cancer, and win a Nobel Prize. Just 15 miles away in Beaverton, Amsberry was aiming at medical school.

Their paths converged at Oregon State University, where they became classmates and friends, and where each tallied an impressive record of internships, research, scholarships, and service. Both graduated summa cum laude in 2013.

Olden set off to pursue a doctorate in bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her thesis research on cancer therapies that harness the immune system was personally motivated by her mother’s 2011 breast cancer diagnosis. (Olden’s mother recently celebrated 10 years cancer free.) But then, during graduate school, her father-in-law was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer for which there is no cure. (All things considered, he’s doing far better than expected.) The news further pushed her to achieve her high school ambitions.

Amsberry, instead of heading to medical school, went to work with a Seattle-based biopharmaceutical company. “I realized, through my coursework, there was an entirely different dimension of medicine that would allow me to combine my desire to help people with my passion for engineering,” he said.

Soon after arriving in Seattle, he learned about an opportunity he couldn’t pass up: working at Juno Therapeutics, a local start-up. Olden, who had recently begun a research collaboration with Juno, told Amsberry about the company’s interesting work in advanced, patient-focused immunotherapy that offered hope to cancer patients. He joined the company as a process engineer. A series of acquisitions brought Juno under the corporate wing of Bristol Myers Squibb. During the transition, Olden became a principal scientist in BMS’s viral vector process development department.

The two play intersecting roles in the development of chimeric antigen receptor T cell therapy, or CAR T cell therapy, intended for patients with certain blood cancers who haven’t responded to conventional treatments.

CAR T cell therapy involves drawing a sample of the patient’s white blood cells. T cells in the blood are then genetically engineered to recognize and bind to proteins found on the surface of certain cancer cells. The reprogrammed CAR T cells — which are multiplied to create the appropriate dose — are injected back into the patient, where they attack targeted cancer cells.

Two of the company’s therapies — Breyanzi, for patients with large B-cell lymphoma, and Abecma, for patients with multiple myeloma —  have received FDA approval. “One of the things I’m most proud of is being involved in the final prep work to file the FDA biological licensing application for Breyanzi,” Olden said. Other cell therapies are in the development pipeline, and applications of the technology beyond cancer treatment are under investigation.

“My department is responsible for what I call the ‘secret sauce’ — the viral vectors used to genetically modify a patient’s cells so they can recognize cancer cells once they’re infused back into the patient,” Olden said. “It’s highly personalized medicine. Every day I literally get to work on something that may become a treatment option down the road for my father-in-law. That’s a huge motivation.” She currently supports early clinical trials of CAR T cell therapy for multiple myeloma.

As a senior engineer in BMS’s cell therapy division, Amsberry supports the technology that influences how products are manufactured and controlled and get delivered to patients. “It’s exciting to work on a team that tackles problems that have never been solved, and potentially to have a profound impact on patients’ lives,” he said. “This is what motivates me every day.”

Looking back, they agree that the College of Engineering — particularly the truly dedicated faculty — set them up to succeed in their endeavors. “The hands-on research experience, for instance, was extremely valuable and solidified my decision to get a doctorate,” Olden said, adding that she felt a great deal of support as a woman in a field dominated by men. Now, at BMS, Olden strives to foster a diverse STEM workforce. 

Amsberry says he benefitted from the collaborative environment fostered by his teachers, but it took some adjusting for the highly competitive student to view his peers as teammates rather than rivals. “With the help of some of the faculty, my mindset shifted to an understanding that working as a team was often the best way to solve big problems,” he said. “That attitude has paid big dividends in my professional life. So has the ability to balance multiple projects at once, which is also something I first did at Oregon State.”

Amsberry and Olden remain close friends. “Our families are really close, and we get together a lot,” Olden said. Working together is a bonus they couldn’t have predicted. Twenty years from now, they hope to look back and see that they had a hand in creating effective and lasting treatments for the countless patients who were running out of time and options. “That,” Amsberry said, “is what I would consider true success.”

March 21, 2022