Growing up with both parents in the science field, Chelsea Kosecki ’09 always had a unique interest in medicine, but she had no idea where that curiosity would take her. “I chose to major in chemistry at VMI mostly because I adored the professors, and my dyke was a chemistry major. My twin brother [Derek Kosecki ’09] also chose chemistry [at VMI], so it felt like home,” she explained. That comfort in the field eventually led Kosecki to a career as a lead scientist in the development of multiple cancer-curing drugs, most of which have been instrumental in treating cancer and have seen revolutionary results.
Her most recent work focused on KISQALI, a drug intended to treat women diagnosed with breast cancer, which entered into its premiere investigational stage in 2013. Now, the drug is available by prescription in countries all over the world, and its impact on its patients is extraordinary.
A significant victory of Kosecki’s research is that KISQALI has earned breakthrough therapy designation by the Food and Drug Administration. As Kosecki explained, the goal behind earning that status is that “it is intended to expedite the development and review of potential new medicines that treat serious or life-threatening conditions if the therapy has demonstrated substantial improvement over an available therapy on at least one clinically significant endpoint.” She also pointed out that a breakthrough therapy designation encompasses Fast Track program features and more intensive FDA guidance on an effective program for drug development. Currently, the drug is able to treat postmenopausal women that have HR+/HER2- locally advanced or metastatic breast cancer, but because of Kosecki’s diligence, it is in the process of being approved for treatment for premenopausal breast cancer.
Kosecki explained the science behind KISQALI further, noting that the drug is “a selective cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor – a class of drugs that help slow the progression of cancer by inhibiting two proteins called cyclin-dependent kinase 4 and 6. These proteins, when over-activated, can enable cancer cells to grow and divide too quickly. Targeting CDK4/6 with enhanced precision may play a role in ensuring that cancer cells do not continue to replicate uncontrollably.”
“Quality is something that VMI taught me,” she stated. “I always tell myself ignorance is not an option at work. Quality is something that cannot be forgotten while developing new drugs.”Chelsea Kosecki ’09
After finding herself submerged in working with KISQALI, Kosecki dedicated her research to treating breast cancer in the premenopausal stage. This cancer behaves differently in its development and progression than it does in someone who has breast cancer after menopause. “Hormones play a large part in cancer, and they can make it more aggressive or difficult or different to treat compared to breast cancer in postmenopausal women,” she explained. “Society treats breast cancer the same for premenopausal and postmenopausal women. My recent study showed that, indeed, there is a need to treat these women differently.” Her concentration was innovative and was presented to the public for the first time at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in December 2017. The response to Kosecki’s research led to it being submitted for approval around the world.
Combining her personal goal to serve others with her drive to succeed, Kosecki has seen substantial advancement in her career. In April 2018, she was promoted from expert clinical scientist to director in clinical research. Her motivation for working so hard in the lab is simple – the more dedicated her efforts, the greater potential she has to save lives. But she doesn’t shy away from admitting just how demanding and consuming the research can be. “I can’t tell you how much time and energy and money it takes to bring a product to market,” she said. “There are hundreds of people and doctors around the world who work on this one product. I touched almost every study for KISQALI in the last five years, and there is still so much left to be done … the clock never stops.”
The great passion Kosecki demonstrates through her research stems from seeing just how transformative her work on a drug can be. “I review CT scans and MRIs of patients for hours each day. I see their cells in a microscope, and then in a couple of weeks or months, when I get to review their scans after taking my drug and see that their tumor has shrunk, or they no longer need to be on chemo – that is the most rewarding part of my job. The fact that I had a hand in extending their life so they could see their grandchildren or have a baby gives me so much joy,” Kosecki expressed.
KISQALI is not only ceasing rapid progression of the disease, it also greatly enhances the quality of life of patients being treated for breast cancer. Another instance that Kosecki recalled was when a patient asked if she could travel to another country to visit a family member. That filled Kosecki with absolute joy and solidified her research’s purpose even further. “Asking me that [question] meant [my patient] was well enough to travel and enjoy life, and that means so much more to me than anything.”
Although it is clear that Kosecki is the perfect mix of what is needed for a successful researcher – determined, caring and motivated – she insists that another factor that helps her in her career is a mentality solidified during her time at the Institute.
“Quality is something that VMI taught me,” she stated. “I always tell myself ignorance is not an option at work. Quality is something that cannot be forgotten while developing new drugs. There are times when it would be easier to document an error in research and let it be, but for me, I feel guilty doing that. I want to find out the root cause and fix it. I want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I want to better the research for the next person, because that might mean it helps more people in the long run.”
(Editor’s Note: Photo by Marie Papp Photography, Inc.)
Elaine Wood Contributing Writer