Nancy Chang: Biochemistry and the Business of Health

Nancy Chang: Biochemistry and the Business of Health

Film transcript

Transcription from video produced in August 2012, with interviews conducted in March 2012. Learn more about Nancy Chang and additional resources connected to the film.

NANCY

My advice to the next generation of girls is do the best you can and follow your heart—follow your passion.

NARRATOR

This is a story about being true to yourself, however long that might take.

 

Chapter 1. Nancy Chang, Ph.D.: Biochemistry and the Business of Health

NANCY

I was born in 1950. That’s when my parents went to Taiwan for honeymoon.

I was the eldest. And my mom always said, uh, the eldest sister is like mother. So I took care of my siblings, whatever their needs are.

In Taiwan, you know, the traditional family, the boys are here [holds her hand at shoulder height] and the girls here [holds her hand at waist height]. And we were the girls. We have a very strict mother and very soft father. My mom is very hard on the girls and spoil the boys.

My dad does incredible things. That I have to tell you. He would measure our waist with a string, measure our shoes with a paper when we’re sleeping, and bring back home beautiful clothes. I don’t know how he can find clothes fit us, but all fit.

NARRATOR

Nancy’s parents originally lived in mainland China and traveled to Taiwan after their wedding. But due to the political unrest of the era the couple was prohibited from returning home and were forced to create a life on this new island, where they neither had jobs nor spoke the language.

NANCY

So when we were eight or nine, we don’t know much. I never was in a car before. I grew up I never see hot water coming out of the faucet. We never see TVs. It was a very poor country.

So maybe 5 percent of the kids can go to college.

NARRATOR

Despite these odds Nancy’s family included some exceptional scholars. Her father and uncle were both professors; her mother had been a surgeon; and a slew of extended relatives achieved some of the world’s superlative accomplishments.

Nancy clearly had good genes.

NANCY

I went to the best girl high school in Taipei, and there we were trained to compete with the boys. So I studied college chemistry the first year in high school and college physics the second year. Became, you know, really infatuated by chemistry and science. And the reason that is, right around there, uh, we have two people from Taiwan got Nobel Prize: Professor Yang and Professor Lee.

They were national heroes; they came to Taiwan. They were in the news. We were being taught by our professors, like, you know, it’s national pride.

NARRATOR

Nancy led a strict life, one that didn’t include the typical teenage passions of the 1960s. Instead, she explored more traditional culture.

NANCY

I don’t know anything about English and singing those things. Instead I’m learning Chinese opera. And every afternoon we were, we were learning that—very disciplined.

I wasn’t feel like fitting in in a lot of the same age kid. It never really bothers me that much because I always had this dream of being somebody special.

 

Chapter 2. When Hardship Inspires Discovery

NARRATOR

Nancy attended Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University, where she met a fellow budding scientist, Tse Wen Chang.

Both received scholarships for graduate school: Nancy heading to Brown University and Tse Wen to Harvard University. They married just a few days before boarding the plane.

NANCY

My father was very worried about us because we don’t have a lot of money; we maybe have $50 in the bank. But Tse Wen’s grandmother saved all her money and put $30,000, give it to me. I took the $30,000, give it to my mom, and didn’t take it with me. So I have $50 in the bank and, um, came to the U.S.

NARRATOR

Nancy planned to study chemistry at Brown. But during the long flight something curious happened: she read The Double Helix, James Watson’s seminal book on his discovery of the structure of DNA.

NANCY

And then when I read Double Helix, that book was so beautifully written, I made up of my mind that I want to go into medical school.

NARRATOR

Moving to the United States was a huge adjustment for Nancy and Tse Wen, who were used to hard work but not the English language.

In fact, the Changs were among the first international students at Harvard—where the professors demanded excellence from every student whether they had a language barrier or not. What’s more, Nancy was entirely new to the field of biology; so her first years there were exceptionally challenging.

NANCY

You know, I have professors gave us this big stack of paper every week to read. You can’t finish up, and you went to the professor, and he said to you, “It’s good for you, go finish.”

I grew up very passively, but it really take hardship to bring the true yourself out, to speak out, to do what you want to do, um, to be the person you really become.

I got my Ph.D. I was, ah, um, every day, probably take the first bus out, the last bus home, never took a vacation. Tse Wen and I will be cooking a big pasta, and we’ll eat the spaghetti and meat sauce for the whole week. And weekends we go to farm’s market. We’ll get a big treat; that will be a slice of pizza. [laughs] That was our happy time.

NARRATOR

Nancy earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry and was so focused on her research she hadn’t thought much about how attractive a Harvard degree might be to potential employers.

NANCY

I was actually working on cloning. I heard about this molecule, interferon—it’s the billion-dollar molecule—how important it is to have this molecule, the magic molecule to treat cancer, to treat infectious diseases.

I read about Dr. Sidney Pestka, who was at Roche Pharmaceutical Company, and I wrote to him, saying, “I want to be your postdoc.” So I went into the industry instead of staying in academia, by accident. And I wasn’t sure, but it was follow my heart.

NARRATOR

Nancy and Tse Wen settled in Parsippany, New Jersey, and started a family. They welcomed their daughter Amy in 1980, then a second daughter, Ann, in 1985.

NANCY

So I was a very nervous mother, and we bought a little house in Parsippany. I always thought the house was so big, and I was all alone there. A twenty-some year old. So first thing get home is I go run upstairs and downstairs in every room and make sure there were no strangers in the house. Then I lock everything up, and so it would be just me and my daughter. [laughs] Crazy.

NARRATOR

Tse Wen’s job kept him away all week in Pennsylvania, and things became tough on the new family.

Nancy decided to apply for a position at his start-up, a lab called Centocor that was doing promising work.

NANCY

They don’t know what I can do or not to do, and I wasn’t trying to sell myself. So they gave me a bench-level position. I was the first group of scientists join the company. We were less than 10 people. And I believe Centocor, that’s where really beginning to transform Nancy.

 

Chapter 3. Turning Science into Medicine

NANCY

I was supposed to be doing diagnostics, which I was doing. But then I was on the side playing with my petri dish. Nobody want me to do it, but I got the time, I was doing it.

I had a library—I made a library. No one knows about it, but we discovered new things. But I almost got myself fired. I did have a letter from the CEO says, “You’re fired.”

So I took the letter—I went to the CEO’s office. I said, “Hubert, you don’t understand what I’m trying to do. Here, I’m making a library. I discovered these things. I think it’s good that you’re doing diagnostic, but I can, I can do these things, maybe making human therapeutics.”

And my boss, he listened to me. I said I need a technician—instead of I was fired, now I’m asking money [smiles]—but I don’t know what went to me, and so I said I need a microwave oven, I need a technician, I need a room. He gave me everything. He teared the letter off; here I am, start it.

That really turned Centocor into a therapeutic company. That was the beginning of the change.

NARRATOR

As Nancy thrived at Centocor, she became more involved with the company’s executives, and her entrepreneurial instincts kicked in.

NANCY

From there I got into bringing in new projects. So one of the projects I brought into the company was HIV.

NARRATOR

Nancy’s team was the first to define and sequence the HIV genome structure and develop one of the first diagnostic assays to detect HIV infection.

NANCY

All those projects I was able to do because the chairman and the CEO allowed that to happen. It was not in the company’s scope; so was wonderful time to have bosses have such an open mind.

NARRATOR

In 1986—just as Nancy’s success was really taking off at Centocor—Baylor College of Medicine in Houston contacted Tse Wen with a teaching position.

NANCY

My husband got his bug about wanting to be a professor. He always wanted to be a professor; his dream was become a professor. And so I’m the Chinese wife—you want to be a professor, you be a professor. So I came down with no jobs. Just the wife. [laughs]

But I walk into the department and show them my credential; so I end up in an associate professor position. So we both became professors.

NARRATOR

In the Division of Molecular Virology, Nancy continued to be inspired by difficult diseases and innovative treatments. One in particular: the terrible allergies she and her husband suffered that triggered asthma attacks.

NANCY

So every spring, every fall, his face is all swollen.

So one night when we were sleeping, he woke me up. He said, “I have this idea about treating allergy by blocking IgE [immunoglobulin E].” I said, “Okay. Get a pen and pencil; I’m the note taker. Tell me about how this works.” So he draw it to me. So I’m looking at this and said, “Yeah, it’s damn good idea.”

So that became the Tanox flagship project, and, uh, I quit my professorship because between husband and wife, who should quit? Wife.

NARRATOR

The Changs founded the biotechnology company Tanox in 1986 to address asthma, allergies, and diseases affecting the human immune system like HIV. Nancy assumed the title president, inaugurating her new life as an entrepreneur.

At Tanox the Changs had great successes, including the discovery of what eventually became Xolair, the first drug cleared for treating asthma related to allergies via the immune system.

It was a huge breakthrough, and as they acquired the patent, Xolair merited the couple a large fortune.

NANCY

Tanox went through very hard time because, you know, we didn’t have the VCs [venture capitalists]. But people were encouraging us. We took the company public in year 2000. It turns out even today it’s the second largest IPO in the whole industry. The company went public at $1.25 billion.

NARRATOR

Amid heavy workload and pressure, the Changs agreed to split in 1992, and Tse Wen returned to Taiwan to teach. Nancy stayed on at Tanox, as president and now CEO.

NANCY

I believe health is a crown jewel on top of your head, and only visible to the sick.

I’m very fortunate being in the health-care field, understand the science behind it.

My legacy, I think, is always gonna be entrepreneurship, turn science to medicine, being a good person, always believing in people, somebody believing in me.

So it’s important that the girls today have to build confidence. And to do that you have to follow your heart. Do the things you really wanted to do, that really matters to you, because then all the hardships become irrelevant. It’s just the dream now.

 

EPILOGUE

In 2007 Nancy sold Tanox to Genentech for $919 million.

In 2008 Nancy was named to the Forbes Twenty-Five Notable Chinese Americans list.

Nancy currently angel invests in health-care entrepreneurs and performs philanthropic work in community health-education projects.

Nancy lives in Houston and enjoys spending time with her daughters, Amy and Ann, and her two granddaughters.

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