Tech Tonics: Diana Brainard – A Passion for Patients, A Talent for Leadership

October 12th, 2020 | | 38:18
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Diana Brainard’s passion for understanding our stories and experiences initially led her to study comparative literature in college; but sometime during her junior year abroad in Lyon, she realized she could pursue her passion through medicine, a journey that’s taken her from academic infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital through her current role as Senior Vice President and head of virology at Gilead Sciences.

Born in Chicago, Diana’s family moved to Brooklyn when she was one, then to the Connecticut suburbs when she was seven.  A precocious student, she skipped an early grade, found she loved the Montesorri school she attended in New York, but grew bored once she started school in Connecticut.  All this changed when she found her way to Hotchkiss Boarding School in 10th grade, and felt as if her mind was awakened – in large measure, she says, because of a number of exceptional teachers.  A former tennis player, she picked up squash, and was subsequently recruited by colleges for her skill (and would later become an “academic all-Ivy selection” for her abilities as both student and athlete).

Like so many other Tech Tonics guests – including Zak Kohane, Atul Butte, and Ken Mandl — Diana attended Brown, and enthusiastically dove into advanced classes in a range of subjects.  The humanities, with its intimate seminars and engaged teachers, proved especially appealing, so she majored in comparative literature and late elected to spent her Junior Year abroad in France.  Diana started to envision a future in graduate school, and then perhaps as a literature professor.

To her surprise and disappointment, Diana’s experience in France left her disillusioned and she found herself drawn, through literature, into medicine.  She was moved by Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and by the poetry of Williams Carlos Williams, and soon she began a correspondence with Harvard physician and author Robert Coles.  Diana ultimately applied to medical school, and attended Tulane, in New Orleans.

Diana loved both the city and the medical school experience – in particular, the amount of responsibility  students were afforded during the clinical rotations at the famed Charity Hospital.  She found a similar sense of responsibility at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she continued her training, first in internal medicine (including a month taking care of patients at an understaffed clinic in Haiti), and ultimately specializing in infectious diseases.

Diana’s interest in HIV in particular led her to noted physician-scientist Bruce Walker, under whose guidance she conducted complex translational research (studying HIV in mice she reconstituted with human immune cells).  She also helped set up a HIV research facility at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.

Though initially contemplating a career in academic infectious diseases, and having earned a competitive K-08 NIH grant to support her efforts, she surprised many of her colleagues by deciding to join Merck, and focus on drug development.   Almost immediately, it seems, she knew she made the right decision, as she found herself surrounded by smart and talented colleagues who, like her, seemed to enjoy functioning in a culture that prized collaboration and multidisciplinary team effort rather than personal recognition.

Diana’s career surged ahead at Merck, and she soon found herself with an opportunity to join an exciting clinical development team that luminary John McHutchison was just starting to assemble at Gilead, in California; she took it. Good call; Diana would serve as the clinical lead for the breakthrough hepatitis C product, Sovaldi, was one of three people at the company to present it to the FDA.  Sovaldi  turned out to be as transformative as anticipated and Diana would go on to lead the development and subsequent approval of several additional hepatitis C products.  In 2018, she was elevated to SVP of HIV and Emerging Viruses, and her remit was  expanded to include hepatitis B and C, and retitled Virology.  Just when it seemed like things couldn’t get busier, SARS-CoV-2 came along, and with it, her leadership of an explosive amount of clinical research around the Gilead product, remdesivir (Veklury).  It’s been a busy year.

Full-disclosure:  Diana is also David Shaywitz’s wife – which is not only why we were able to book her, but also why we are especially delighted to welcome her to our show! 

We are grateful to Manatt Health for sponsoring today’s episode of Tech Tonics.  Manatt Health integrates strategic business consulting, public policy acumen, legal excellence and deep analytics capabilities to better serve the complex needs of clients across America’s healthcare system. Together with its parent company, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, the firm’s multidisciplinary team is dedicated to helping its clients across all industries grow and prosper.

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Posted in: Audio Podcast, Healthcare, Tech Tonics, Technology