Science & Solutions

For Sanofi Scientist Amy Richards, Research Is Personal

Amy Richards is a researcher at Sanofi’s lab in Framingham, Mass. focusing on rare neurodegenerative diseases. Amy is part of a team of scientists working on the GBA-related Parkinson’s disease project, a rare form of the chronic neuro-degenerative condition. She studied biology at Brown University and says the springboard for her career was working in the Dept. of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology and Biotechnology (MPPB) where she was exposed to people from all over the world.

Amy Richards with her father

Q: What inspired you to work in science?

A: A major inspiration along my career path has been my dad. He was a Clinical Lab Scientist at Kent County Hospital in Rhode Island for over 20 years; a Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves where he was a medical officer; and finally a high school science teacher. My father also suffered from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). I lived with my parents during the course of my dad’s disease and helped my mom and sister take care of him as he became progressively paralyzed. ALS, like many diseases, is completely devastating and there are no disease modifying therapies. My research cluster within Sanofi, led by Jim Dodge, is currently researching ALS. It would be amazing for us to move the marker even by a small fraction, to understand the disease biology better. That’s what keeps me going: the memory of my dad and the thousands of people who are actively dealing with their worlds being rocked by neurodegenerative diseases.

Q: What disease did you first research?

A: One of the first projects I worked on is gene therapy for Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). SMA is like ALS for children. It is a genetic disease that causes motor neurons in the spinal cord to die. The work we did on this project was profound to me, and it contributed to the advancement of therapeutics for this disease.

Q: Did you “always know” that you wanted to work in science, or was there a person or experience that led you to that decision?

A: Truly the first topic I ever researched was microbiology with my dad. In 5th grade, I swabbed the desks of the boys and girls to see who was dirtier for a science fair project. My dad brought me agar plates and taught me the correct way to streak a plate. We made homemade incubators with large plastic bags, some sponges and lots of CO2 from exhaled breaths. After that I maintained a great interest in biology and the scientific method through high school, college and then after.

Amy in the lab

Q: As a scientist, what do you hope you can achieve – how is the work you do helping make a difference to patients, society or science in general?

A: The holy grail of research science is being able to get it to the clinic to deliver efficacious therapies to patients. I have been extremely lucky to be part of the Venglustat story for GBA-related Parkinson’s disease. I’ve seen our disease-related animal model’s pathology corrected with Venglustat. It is extremely motivating to see a therapy work, when so often they do not. It’s rare to hit the nail on the head, but when it happens, it makes it worth the hours of testing the memories of mice!

Q: What’s it like to discover something?

A: Working on SMA gene therapy and seeing the results was beyond exciting. We had a very severe mouse model of the disease: pups who had SMA would not survive past 14 days after birth. They were small, weak and severely paralyzed. With gene therapy, we were able to deliver the protein the animals needed and rescue them from the disease. These animals were now thriving, growing big, gaining strength, and living out 200+ days. I still have a picture of some of the mice at my desk to remind me of just how amazing that was!

Q: Anything else about your journey as a scientist you would like to share?

A: Good science is collaborative! I wouldn’t be here without the help, support and mentorship from my colleagues.

Amy and her family