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Diane Pennica

Being a woman helped Diane Pennica to make the greatest breakthrough of her career, but not in a way one might expect.

By | November 7, 2005

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Courtesy of Diane Pennica

Being a woman helped Diane Pennica to make the greatest breakthrough of her career, but not in a way one might expect.

In 1980, just a month after being hired at Genentech, Pennica found herself at a meeting on fibrinolysis in Sweden, where 30 scientists, all men, were listening to Desire Collen describe how he'd used protein purified from melanoma cells to dissolve a blood clot in a patient's leg.

The protein was tissue plasminogen activator (TPA), and Genentech had sent Pennica to the meeting for the express purpose of finding a substance that could be used to dissolve clots in patients who had had heart attacks. "This was exactly what Genentech had sent me to hear," she recalls.

But she wasn't supposed to be in that room. By accident, she'd slipped into a private preconference session. "They didn't ask me to leave right away because they thought I was one of the scientists' daughters waiting for her dad," says Pennica. The idea that she might be a young, hungry scientist herself apparently hadn't crossed their minds.

After Pennica revealed her true identity, some of the group invited her to dinner, where she proposed to Collen that they collaborate on cloning TPA. Many doubted the protein could ever be cloned because it was so large, but Pennica told him, "Sure, I can do it! I didn't tell him that I had never cloned anything in my life." Pennica went on to clone TPA in 1981, which she considers her greatest achievement so far.

Plenty of happy coincidences have driven Pennica's career, along with her willingness to seize the moment. While working on her PhD at the University of Rhode Island, she heard about a meeting on rhabdoviruses in London. She'd been working with vesicular stomatitis virus and wanted to attend the meeting, but her department didn't have the cash to send her. The conference was offering $500 travel grants. Her advisor told her not to bother to apply; she did, won the grant, and brought a few slides summarizing her work at the suggestion of her colleague, Doug Testa.

Testa asked the conference organizer if Pennica could give an impromptu talk. "The organizer reluctantly told Doug, 'I'll give her five minutes and only five slides,"' Pennica recalls. "I was a nervous wreck." She quickly ran back, slid seven slides into the projector, "and gave one of the best talks I've ever given."

Impressed with her work, Jack Obijeski asked her to collaborate with him on a rabies virus project. Obijeski also was consulting for a tiny biotech company called Genentech, and later told Pennica that it was looking to hire someone who could work with RNA. She became the company's 60th employee.

Pennica admits she no longer sticks to the punishing pace she and her colleagues set in Genentech's early days, when she would routinely work 15 hours a day, seven days a week. "I barely found time to even pay a bill or exercise or anything, but the funny thing was I couldn't wait to get to the lab."

Today, Pennica is a senior scientist in Genentech's molecular oncology department. The most satisfying experience of her career so far, she says, has been meeting the first heart attack patient who was treated with TPA. She just happened to be walking down the hall when "this guy grabbed me and hugged me and said, 'Thank you, thank you! Your drug saved my life."'

She keeps a card on her office wall from another patient who thanked her for saving his life. "When I have a bad day of work I look at that card and I forget about everything."

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