Coastlines Online, UC Santa Barbara Alumni Association

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Fall 2017
It started with a ladybug

Raquel Izumi’s search for the cure.
By George Thurlow '73

From the time she was five years old Raquel Izumi ’93 knew she was going to be a scientist.
It probably started the day she captured a ladybug and watched in amazement as its hard shell elytra pulled back to reveal an amazing set of wings. She wrote up a science report on her discovery and so began an amazing career that has taken her to the forefront of cancer drug development in California.

Today Izumi is the co-founder of the pharmaceutical company Acerta and its executive vice president of Clinical Development. The company is developing a small molecule that can attack several different types of blood cancer cells.

Last year a 55 percent stake in Acerta was sold to the multinational pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca, for $4 billion.

Like so many of her successful Gaucho science peers, it was not an easy path to financial and scientific success.

Along the way she was fired from a pharmaceutical company despite doing some of the best work of her career. It stunned her and to this day you can hear the pain it caused. But it also provided her with the impetus to start her own company.

Izumi, whose mother is Colombian and stepfather is Japanese-American, joined with two Dutch, one Egyptian-born and one Filipino-American colleague to form Acerta Pharma. In her 2017 commencement speech to UCSB science graduates, Izumi said, “I believe that due to the different backgrounds of the founders, our company attracted and hired individuals of different races, ethnicities and nationalities…This potent mix of humanity accomplished several unprecedented feats.” They included initiating 20 clinical trials for their drug and garnering a major publication of their human trial. “For organizations out there that do not believe it is important to have diversity at the executive level, the success of Acerta speaks for itself.”

Izumi speaking at Commencement 2017

What was powerful about Izumi’s experience at UCSB was her professors who “fostered an interest in science.” Like so many of her fellow undergraduate science majors, Izumi had a chance to work in research labs. Her mentor was biologist Ian Ross who sparked her interest in mycology, the branch of botany that deals with fungi. It was in Ross’ lab that Izumi first learned how to purify DNA. She notes that now her kids learn to purify DNA in the sixth grade.

From her contacts at UCSB, Izumi landed a research job at Amgen, in Thousand Oaks, California. There she worked in the Stem Cell Biology group, headed by Joan Egrie, one of the scientists who developed Epogen, a blockbuster drug that is used to treat anemia in patients undergoing chemotherapy or renal failure. “Working in biotech changed my career objective from initially wanted to be an academic scientist to a greater interest in an industry position,” she said recently in an interview near her Bay Area home.

While Izumi had obtained a doctorate in microbiology and immunology at UCLA she chose not to take a post-doctoral position and instead went back into industry. “I wanted to work on something that would directly impact patients,” she explained.

As she told the UCSB Class of 2017, “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it.” She admitted to crying for a week after being fired and then her husband lost his job. “I like to say my husband and I are a tight-knit couple, not only do we exercise together but we go on unemployment together.”

“The point is,” she went on to say, “there is never a perfect time to embark on a big adventure, whether it be getting married, writing your first novel, traveling the world, or starting your own company. If you have a list in your head of all the things that must happen before you take the leap, you will be paralyzed by insecurity and fear. You risk missing out on the most meaningful and relevant opportunities in your life.”