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Christine Brideau: An Early Adopter to Change

SLAS member Christine Brideau overcomes challenges in her career path by seizing the opportunities that travel along with them.


Like many in the profession, Christine Brideau, B.S., describes her ascent in research as a journey filled with continual change. Just last month, she accepted an offer from Wuxi AppTec Inc. to set up an in vitro biology assay development laboratory in New Jersey – a first for the contract research organization (CRO) based in Shanghai, China.

The continual change process was no different in previous positions Brideau has held. Take, for example, her introduction to robots. Brideau, former executive director of In Vitro Pharmacology at Merck Research Laboratories in New Jersey, first met her automated lab mates in 1999 when Merck invested in high-throughput screening (HTS) and issued a budget to set up an HTS lab at Brideau's site located near Montreal in Kirkland, Quebec, Canada.

"I could work a benchtop liquid handler, but I felt a bit intimidated when they asked me to take over this new lab with robots," says Brideau, who is an author and reviewer for SLAS's Journal of Laboratory Automation (JALA) and an author for the Journal of Biomolecular Screening (JBS). She decided to embrace the challenge. It was a strategy that brought success in her past and blossomed in this instance as well.

"I needed this new challenge at that time," Brideau explains. "I knew my area inside out, and it was time to expand, so I jumped in." She hired an engineer and assembled a team that grew to 25 over the next 10 years. "This was real management. I had worked with students in the past, but this time I was responsible for careers, development and mentoring people," she continues. "You can't get anything done on your own. The stronger your skills for working with others and developing collaborations, the stronger your measure of success will be."

One step that helped ensure this success was moving out into the profession for support. Ideas she harvested during the 1999 LabAutomation conference helped Brideau conquer her robotic challenge. "I started attending the Society's events more than 14 years ago. I have met a lot of people who are now great friends in SLAS," she explains. "I established great working relationships with the vendors – I feel like they all know me. The early 2000s were a time of great developments for implementing high throughput assays, and I have continued coming away from meetings excited about new product introductions or news of what is in development."

When Brideau attends or sends others from her teams to events such as SLAS2014, held Jan. 18-22, 2014 in San Diego, CA, her intention is to help her biologists to be more automation savvy. "I know what it's like! When something happens with a robot you tend to panic and call the engineer. If you're a biologist and you're using these tools, you need to know something about them. That's why I attend SLAS events. You see the latest technology and then you see immediate purposes."

Repurposing was important for Brideau in 2001, when Merck's HTS operation centralized and moved to the U.S. "We had to find a new use for our robots in Montreal," she comments. She leveraged the automation to do routine weekly med-chem structure-activity relationships (SAR), a process Brideau refers to as "medium throughput" and something that had not been considered before. "Although we weren't doing HTS, we still had the capabilities for higher throughput and we could easily run 300 dose responses. A dose response screening experiment with10 concentration points can result in more than 3,000 data points per day," she notes.

"I had done this before with workstations, but it was only semi-automated. Now with the robots, we had projects with seven counterscreens to run against different homologues. We could run 384 dose responses in one experiment using a robot. You could set it up, let it run overnight and come back to data waiting for you. I invested in a compound management system that allowed us to do this. In 2001, all the compound management systems were geared for HTS, which is one compound in the well at one concentration and that was it. With our robots we could screen many compounds, but titrated across at various concentrations."

She notes that not everything is suitable for a robot – especially when running it for long hours. "Some of the reagents are not stable, but where it can be done, I advocate it," she says. "If you can set up your system to run all night, you have the next day to either do more data analysis or do things other than routine work."

What Brideau built became a model for Merck's in vitro pharmacology groups. "When I said that I was going to use robots for screening, it was not an obvious thing. We had to make changes – even with the chemists and how they submitted their compounds. They had to change their normal processes so that we could access their samples quickly in order to screen for them. When the chemists saw the value of it and the quality increase because the robot makes fewer mistakes, they were on board and willing to adjust processes to help the effort."

Long Love of Science; Long History with Merck

Brideau has deep roots in her love of science and her ties to Merck. Her mother, Cairine Brideau, was a nurse who began working at the Merck site in Montreal when Brideau was a youngster. She provided occupational health and on-site care.

"My mother loves science," Brideau says. "When we watched television at night when I was growing up, she wanted to watch science documentaries. She really exposed me to the field of science because of her nursing. She talked about diseases and health issues, which led to my interest in biology."

As a teenager, Brideau also heard wonderful things about the Merck scientists. "It was an inspiration for me. Once, during the company barbecue for the Merck families, the research labs were open for tours," she shares. "I remember seeing the heart of a guinea pig completely isolated, beating on its own. That made a huge impression on me at 15!"

All these factors led Brideau to pursue biology in her studies. Brideau attended Concordia University in Montreal and earned a bachelor's degree in cell and molecular biology. During her last summer at university, Brideau received a scholarship to work in the lab. "It was my first real time to work in the lab and I thoroughly enjoyed it," she comments. At that time, Brideau and her then-boyfriend John decided to marry. As he prepared for an MBA program, Brideau worked full time in the labs at McGill University. "I was fortunate to work with lab heads who allowed us to publish. For the three years I was there I got to do some creative work and had it published," she says.

Then a dream job for a biologist opened at Merck in Montreal. Although a bit daunted by the position, Brideau decided to interview. She quickly accepted the offer to work for Merck, grateful for the opportunity in the face of job shortages in pharmaceutical lab research during the late '80s and early '90s in Montreal. Landing the job started a 23-year career with the pharmaceutical company; it also gave her the opportunity to work alongside her mother.

"At the time, there were about 1,600 people on site – and everyone knew my mom!" says Brideau, whose first projects at Merck dealt with human blood assays. "I sent a lot of people to my mother for blood draws. She is even acknowledged on one of my papers," Brideau explains.

Brideau's team conducted SAR screening of blood assays for cyclooxygenase's (COX) isoforms. Specifically, they were looking for COX-2 inhibitors that didn't affect COX-1. "That's where my whole area of screening started," she explains. In those pre-automation days, Brideau describes running through 600 test tubes a day. "I went through layers of skin on my thumb flicking the cap open. When I found out there were ways we could automate this, and I didn't have to do all the manual work, I was the first one in line!" she says with a laugh.

Another interest at this time for Brideau was data analysis. "Because we used human volunteers, there was always an outlier in the data. I kept asking 'Is it because that person had a fatty breakfast?' 'Did they have low hemoglobin?' We tried to figure out what these outliers were," she says, adding that for the next eight years, she managed a database that tracked all the biochemical information about the anonymous blood donors.

In 2010, Merck decided to close the Montreal site and Brideau found herself heading to Kenilworth, NJ, to work with a group at a former Schering-Plough site that remained after a merger with Merck in 2009. "It was all Schering employees accustomed to a different structure. We had to form a team and form a department of 75 people. It was a big challenge, but within a year we were up and running," Brideau explains.

"I didn't try to impose things too quickly. I tried to listen and learn. I stopped myself from saying 'this is how we did it in Montreal,'" she says. "What has always helped me in my career is reaching out to people to learn and being open to new ideas. I always prefer to have more people bringing in their ideas and their opinions/comments. I think one idea is good, but having multiple people working on that idea is even better."

The Move from Big Pharma

"There has been so much change in pharma in recent years with reduction in terms of footprint, sites closing down and a focus on reducing costs as companies seek a better ROI," Brideau notes. "There is a lot of money spent on internal research, internal R&D. So over the past years, there has been a big effort to push work out to contract research organizations."

Brideau noted that the move to using CROs got its start with the clinical and manufacturing sides but now it has gotten to the point that even early drug discovery is being outsourced to CROs. "When I was with Merck, I actually worked with our Chinese CROs to move drug discovery assays there," she says. "When the opportunity presented itself, the CEO reached out to me to set up an in vitro biology group in New Jersey." The result was her new position with Wuxi.

"Anyone working with biological assays knows there are hurdles to doing assay development and tech transfer successfully," Brideau offers. "The biology side is very complex. The CEO of Wuxi realized that this might be an area where it would be worth having a group in New Jersey where we can work closely with our partners, troubleshoot, develop assays and help with reagent provisioning in the U.S. and then do the tech transfer to Shanghai. This will improve the quality of the biology as well as improve the delivery time."

Having Brideau's laboratory in Cranbury, NJ, allows Wuxi to tap into the talent pool available on the East Coast of the United States where, Brideau notes, there is so much expertise in early drug discovery. Brideau is building her team, and she invites you to take a look at jobs posted through LinkedIn for the latest open positions.

"I am truly excited about the opportunities in this new position," she notes. "It is a thrill for me to broaden my scope, learn more about what is going on out in the field and work with so many partners in academia, biotech and large pharma. I think the industry is going through a shift in how drug discovery is happening – less and less in big pharma and more and more with the smaller biotechs and academic labs. We can use our capabilities at Wuxi to serve a lot of clients. We are an open access technology and services platform that makes it possible for all to discover and develop therapeutic products."

Brideau also has oversight of the in Wuxi vitro biology in China as well, and looks forward to at least quarterly trips to Shanghai to work with the team based there.

Practicing Biology Outside the Lab

Success outside the lab was possibly a more difficult challenge for Brideau. Moving a household to the U.S. has been a full-time job in itself, and renovating the new house is a never-ending project. An anchor in this storm of change is the close relationship she shares with John, her husband of 25 years.

"The hardest part of the move was not only meeting new people, but also adjusting to a new culture in the States. My husband and I lean on each other a lot. He is my coach, my mentor and the reason I am where I am today," she comments. "Moving to the States has not been easy. He had to leave a business behind in Montreal."

In Montreal, the couple liked to go to the gym and work out together and anticipates getting into a schedule in which they can do this again. "We end up making friends with people we meet at the gym. It's important to have friends outside your working sphere," Brideau comments. "For my husband and me, it's important to have mutual friends."

Another aspect of their past life that the couple hopes to regain in the U.S. is their saltwater aquarium hobby. In Montreal, they started and maintained a 125-gallon saltwater aquarium for six years. "It held all these beautiful tropical fish," Brideau says. "Let me tell you, building it was quite an undertaking. We were naïve when we started working on it. We thought, 'we'll just get an aquarium, it's no big deal!' Once you start doing this, you realize that it is a lot more complicated than it looks!"

The couple spent many hours with the staff of an aquarium store who delved into the complicated topics of alkalinity and pH. "At that point my husband looks at me and says, 'well, you're the biologist! You should be able to figure this out.' I felt that I had to prove something. I thought if I couldn't get this aquarium to work, there's no hope!" Brideau says with a laugh. The first year was rough, she reports, adding that you have to learn from your mistakes.

"One time, we lost the entire tank, and you can't imagine how attached you get to your fish. Then for the next six years we had a beautiful tank. A project like this helps you learn about and appreciate the fragility of the oceans," says Brideau, who shares these lessons with her two nieces. "I try to impart to them how delicate the balance of life is. The aquarium was a great learning experience about how we have to protect our oceans. The smallest change in pH creates a big difference in the ecosystem."

Unfortunately, when the couple moved to New Jersey the aquarium had to stay behind. "The fish probably would have made it past customs, because you can describe them adequately," Brideau explains. "The problem was the 120 pounds of live rock that keeps tanks healthy with its mixture of bacterial elements. It would have been impossible to describe that to customs' satisfaction. I would have had to go through the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife for permits. So we returned the rocks to nature and the fish to our friends at the fish store." She has plans to get an aquarium going after she finishes renovations on her home in New Jersey.

Brideau is philosophical about all these adjustments in her life and career. "Since I moved to the U.S. nearly four years ago, there has been constant change," she observes, adding that mentors have been another anchor that has helped her through all her transitions. "I take mentoring people seriously because I had a great manager and mentor in Montreal. She always had my back and was someone with whom I could talk things through. I have had great support here, too. However, for the first time, I have found that my mentors have retired or moved on. I am still friends with them outside of work, but I find now that I am the mentor."

Gathering different perspectives is a good practice, Brideau concludes. "There is never one right idea. While you're not necessarily looking for a consensus, you are looking for ways to improve your original idea. You start with one idea and may end up with something completely different."

February 24, 2014