Dr Elaine Hamm is inspired by the people who stare at her every day, “whether they know they are there or not,” she said. Select photos of family and friends surround her home office computer — each with their own story about a devastating diagnosis, each connected to a therapeutic drug Hamm is currently pushing forward in hopes of a cure.
With a Ph.D. in microbiology and previous work experience with universities, start-ups and pharma companies, Hamm excels at the intersection of science and business. In 2018, she founded Ascend Bioventures, a pharmaceutical accelerator company.
“I have pictures of a friend who has MS; my own father who died of Alzheimer’s; and a colleague of mine whose child can’t hear,” Hamm said. “Because there is so much failure and it is an industry driven by profit, you have to find your reason ‘why’ and keep that at the forefront. I need to work on things that I truly, deeply care about and can put a face to.”
Hamm has reviewed more than 400 diagnostics and therapeutics, and she says she is most drawn to developing the “big game-changers.” One project, currently on the cusp of human trials, could solve hearing loss by regrowing inner hair cells inside the cochlea. Another project is a revolutionary gene therapy for Alzheimer’s. In addition, she’s working on a better drug for multiple sclerosis, one that addresses the condition instead of just masking the symptoms.
“With Ascend, we are trying to find really interesting new drugs that have great potential and to find a home for them,” she said. “In the end, I’m just a nerd who likes solving problems. I have a new problem coming across my desk every day and I’m just like ‘All right, let’s dig in. Let’s do this.’”
Alongside her everyday work (and ongoing hobby of fostering dogs), Hamm enjoys speaking to students and mentoring rising entrepreneurial stars. She is especially passionate about encouraging more diversity and inclusion in science.
“It’s a male-dominated industry — I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t — but I want little girls to see me and think, ‘Yep, I could do that too,’” she said.
Hamm considers herself a realist, so being an example of a woman succeeding in science is important to her. Equally important is mitigating her expectations with each new project. While Hamm hopes for the best possible outcomes for all of the drugs she develops, she’s also continually bracing for curveballs.
“With drug development, the stage I focus on, only 10% go on to become a new drug. So there are a lot of failures,” Hamm said. “I don’t sit [comfortably] in the successes because I’m always looking forward to the next obstacle. We’ve helped a lot of guinea pigs hear, but getting from here [this stage] to humans is a substantial mountain to climb.”
As Hamm makes that ascent, she glances at the faces taped along her computer screen. Silently and perhaps unknowingly, they cheer her on. Whatever the challenges, they are worth it. Whatever the failures, Hamm will keep going.