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Janssen-Drexel Fellowship in Psychiatric Drug Development Helps Fellows Build Academic, Industry Skills

October 31, 2023

By August Ryan

The Janssen-Drexel Fellowship in Psychiatric Drug Development recently onboarded its third fellow. Participants in the program, from organizers to fellows, said the initiative offers a much-needed combination of two different research environments.

The year-long fellowship is a collaboration between Drexel University College of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Janssen Research & Development, the pharmaceutical company of Johnson & Johnson.

Fellows spend 20 to 30 percent of their time at the College of Medicine, teaching within the Department of Psychiatry and pitching in on relevant psychopharmacology research endeavors. Working 70 to 80 percent of the time at Janssen R&D, fellows participate in cutting-edge clinical pharmaceutical development programs.

Wei Du, MD, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and a professor of psychiatry, and pharmacology and physiology at the College of Medicine, was inspired to spearhead the fellowship program based on his own professional experience. Having worked within the pharmaceutical industry as well as in academic medicine, Du has long believed there should be more connection between the two fields.

“I see significant opportunities for both parties to train the future generation of clinical leaders who can lead drug development, and that can translate back to physicians’ clinical practice. But, previously, I’d never seen that as an active collaboration,” Du said.

“The other reason to do this within Drexel was that we had already built very strong programs in clinical research and in drug development,” Du said. “We also had a number of faculty members in pharmacology who were very successful in industry before they came back to the academic side.”

Fellows take on work with Drexel based on their own academic backgrounds. The program’s first fellow, Josef Witt-Doerring, MD, had trained as a psychiatrist and was able to see patients in clinical settings. The second and third fellows, both graduates of PhD programs, have been involved in studies at the Drexel Medical Cannabis Research Center (MCRC), of which Du is a co-director.

Fellows’ contributions to a study on the use of medical cannabis to improve quality of life for patients with PTSD and with certain types of chronic pain illustrates how bench research is inherently connected to clinical medicine, said Kenny Simansky, PhD, senior vice dean for research and a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology and in psychiatry at the College of Medicine.

“So much of the information on how medical marijuana can treat patients is anecdotal and not up to the standards of rigorous science, especially in psychiatry, psychology and the other neurosciences,” Simansky said. “This study is one that is trying to deliver hard evidence that can be applied to patient care, because we're a medical school and we want to only treat our patients with evidence-based therapeutics.”

As Bridget Kajs was completing her PhD in neuroscience at University of California San Francisco, she realized she wanted to be involved in research that would contribute as much as possible to improving the lives of patients. Kajs liked that the Janssen-Drexel fellowship would allow her to work in psychiatry, her major area of interest. She was also drawn to the emphasis on working between two research environments.

During her 2022-2023 fellowship period, Kajs gained experience in both observational and interventional research. She learned from her Drexel experience how to launch a study and saw the end stages of a clinical study in her work at Janssen.

“For me, the greatest strength of this program is really the breadth and depth of experience that you get,” she said. “I gained exposure to a large amount of what is involved in clinical research in a very short period of time, in terms of what is out there for me to explore.”

Following her fellowship experience, Kajs has decided to pursue further work on the academic side of clinical research. Experiences during the medical cannabis study, including working on a smaller team and getting to interact with patients, helped solidify her decision.

Current Janssen-Drexel fellow Denia Cai Shi, PhD, was interested in the fellowship in part because of the opportunity “to see my work through from a petri dish to a human being.” With a background in plant biology and exposure to neuroscience and pharmaceutical research through Janssen Clinical Innovations, Cai Shi was excited to work in a more familiar research space and in the new environment of academic medicine.

“It has been beyond my expectations,” she said. “I can see that breadth and depth Bridget talked about. For example, taking over Bridget’s work on the Drexel side, I've been learning so much about the processes required to do clinical research in human participants. My experience in industry has been more high-level, looking at data rather than working with participants.”

Carla Canuso, MD, Vice President of Neuroscience Clinical Development at Janssen Research and Development, MCP ’91, said it is important for fellows to have a range of experiences.

“You have to keep an open mind. There may be a field that interests you that you don’t know about yet,” she said. “If an interesting opportunity comes up, even if it's not something that you had previously considered or knew much about, that shouldn't be a deterrent to exploring it. It might just turn out to be what you love.”

Simansky said it is somewhat rare for academic physicians to have industry experience, which is part of what makes the fellowship unique. He emphasized the importance of the program being open both to MDs and DOs as well as to PhDs, as physicians need to understand clinical research processes, and researchers must always have an eye toward patient outcomes.

Simansky also lauded Du for creating this opportunity for the integration of translational and clinical discovery in psychiatry.

“This should be a model for other therapeutic areas in the future,” Simansky said.

Ultimately, Du said, the fellowship aims to make its alumni well-rounded, with more wide-ranging perspectives.

“Regardless of where alumni go, whether they stay on the pharma side of the equation or they join the academic side, I think what I'm looking for is someone who can speak the language of both sides,” he said. “Once they can speak both languages, they will be a tremendous asset regardless of where they go in the world of clinical drug development.”