Dr Rosemary Versteegen
Born 22nd August, 1948 (Glasgow, Scotland)
Rosemary J Versteegen worked for over twenty years with Life Technologies Inc, which in the 1990s was one of largest suppliers of culture cell products and other scientific reagents to the biotechnology industry. She was pivotal to the company’s success in winning FDA approval for the first diagnostic test using synthetic nucleic acid probes for detecting infection with the human papillomavirus, one of the most common causes of cervical cancer. In addition, Versteegen is one of the co-founders and the Chief Executive Officer of the International Serum Industry Association, an organisation that works to promote standards of excellence and ethics in the animal serum and animal derived products industry.
Rosemary J Versteegen is the oldest of three girls. Her father, George Roberts, graduated in medicine and science from the University of Glasgow, but could not fulfil his ambition to be a surgeon because of bad eyesight. Instead he became a pathologist, initially training at the Western Infirmary, a teaching hospital in the West End of Glasgow.
Versteegen grew up in the well-to-do suburbs on the Southside of Glasgow. Most of the girls in the neighbourhood left school and married young. By contrast, Versteegen attended Hutcheson’s Girls’ Grammar School, the best girls school in the area, and was strongly encouraged by her father to stand on her own two feet and be as independent as possible.
Versteegen’s father, George, was highly unusual for his generation in the support he gave all three of his daughters. This was in part driven by how much he had hated seeing his wife-to-be, Jean, their mother, undervalued by her parents when she was young. George and Jean had started dating when they were both just 16 years old. All too often George had witnessed Jean's parents undervaluing her over her brother who they treated as a golden boy but whom he thought had feet of clay. George also drew inspiration from his own mother who had studied at Queen Margaret College, the first place to provide higher education opportunities for women in the days before they were admitted to Scottish universities.
When Versteegen was two and half years old her first sister was born. From that moment on her father regularly took her with him to work, where she sat happily perched on a stool peering down a microscope or doing other things around the laboratory. As she puts it, ‘I was raised around labs. I didn’t quite understand that the wee animals I was feeding in the animal house were going to be experimented on.’ When she was 14 years old, her father used his connections to get her a summer laboratory job. She ended up working for a doctoral student supervised by Martin Smellie, Professor of biochemistry at the University of Glasgow. This was her first experience of ‘real science’ and moved her on from ‘just looking down a microscope at my own hair’. Versteegen’s father enthusiasm for science not only rubbed off on her, it also inspired her sisters, both of whom went on to become veterinarians at a time when very few women were entering that profession.
Versteegen has married twice. Her first husband, Laurence Mcintyre, she met when she was doing her undergraduate degree. She later married Peter Versteegen, a Dutch/American who had three children by a previous marriage.
In 1966 Versteegen left school and started studying at Glasgow University. Unlike her father, she decided not to pursue medicine because she realised she had too much empathy to cope as a doctor. Based on her liking for chemistry, she chose instead to study organic chemistry. Within a short space of time, however, it became obvious she would never make a good organic chemist. This dawned on her when telling one lecturer she used ‘feminine intuition’ to draw arrows in diagrams to indicate the way electron moved in reactions. After this she switched to biochemistry, a course that lasted four years. This was easy as she had already completed most of the required courses for this major. In her honours year the class was down to seven students, of which Versteegen was one of just two females.
By taking up biochemistry at this time, Versteegen was entering relatively uncharted territory, as the discipline was only just then emerging as a distinct discipline. Just how new the field was can be judged by the fact that scientists had only recently figured out what restriction enzymes were and how they functioned.
Once she had completed her undergraduate degree, Versteegen stayed on at the University of Glasgow to do a doctorate under Peter F. T. Vaughan, who was based in the biochemistry department. Her research focused on enzyme kinetics, in particular examining why plant tissues go brown when they bruise. This necessitated using extracts from spinach. Versteegen vividly remembers how working with spinach singled her out in the laboratory. As she recalls, ‘while everyone splattered blood all over the centrifuges and all over the walls, I splattered green stuff. That meant everyone knew where I had been. It was always entertaining.’
Versteegen greatly enjoyed figuring out the mechanism of enzymes for her PhD and it was a hot research topic at the time. She finished her doctorate in 1970. The hardest part she found was towards the end. As she says, ‘I had to lock myself up for three months to write my dissertation because I kept wanting to associate with people and do more experiments.’
Following her doctorate, Versteegen accompanied her first husband to Cambridge, where she spent a year working in the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB). Surrounded by trailblazing scientists like Sydney Brenner, Fred Sanger and Cesar Milstein, Versteegen found the atmosphere incredibly contagious and was impressed by the dedication of everyone around her. On more than one occasion, when working in the middle of the night, she would see Sanger coming down the hall to check on one of the experiments he was doing in his effort to develop a reliable method to sequence DNA. Francis Crick also worked in the building at the time and regularly held sessions every Friday to encourage people to talk about what they were doing. What she remembers most from these meetings was that Crick always asked the unanswerable question. As she says, ‘when he asked a question, it was like someone had dropped a pebble down a well and you were sitting waiting for it to hit the bottom. He was really amazing.’
Unable to get funding to continue at the LMB, Versteegen then went to work with George A. M. Cross, a molecular parasitologist then based at the Tropical Disease Institute and the MRC’s Biochemical Parasitology Unit in Cambridge. Cross was investigating the biochemical and genetic characteristics of trypanosomes, a type of parasite that causes sleeping sickness. A lot of Versteegen’s work involved injecting rats with the trypanosomiasis parasite and then harvesting it from the rats. She remembers one particularly amusing incident from her time with Cross. ‘On my birthday I came into the laboratory to find some rats wandering around happily in their cage with letters on their backs. When I finished sacrificing them I found the letters spelled out “Happy Birthday Rosie”. George brought me a bunch of flowers to apologise.’
In 1972, both Versteegen and her then husband applied for fellowships in the United States. They were keen to spend some time out there because UK Universities were then only appointing faculty positions to those who had previously worked in America. Versteegen gained a two-year Fogarty International Fellowship to work on demyelination of neurons with Roscoe Brady. His laboratory was based in Bethesda at the Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, which was part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Coming from Cambridge where, as Versteegen puts it, ‘science was never a 9 to 5 job’, this proved to be quite a cultural shock. She remembered her ‘first day of work at NIH watching people leaving at 5 o’clock and thinking “how do you do that”’. To this day, she continues to work ‘crazy hours’.
Following her time with Brady, Versteegen went to work with Steve Oroszlan, a collaborator of Robert Gallo. In 1975, while working on retroviruses Gallo isolated a virus very similar to HIV. This work was being done at the Frederick Cancer Research Facility (FCRF), a small NIH outpost based 20 miles away from Bethesda that had just set been up in the old laboratories of Fort Detrick, previously been a centre for research on biological warfare. Versteegen stayed at the FCRF for nearly three years working on the purification and sequencing of some important proteins including p12 which plays a role in the regulation of viral expression.
By the time Versteegen finished working at the FCRF, in 1982, she had remarried and was looking for a career change. After reading What colour is your parachute, a popular book by Richard Bolles about career change, Versteegen realised that she was probably more of a people person than a scientist and that what she liked most was connecting people. Based on this she took a job with Bethesda Research Laboratories Inc (BRL). Founded by Steve Turner in 1976, this was a small biotechnology company that specialised in supplying restriction enzymes to to researchers in biomedical research institutions in Washington D.C.
Versteegen did not have a particularly auspicious beginning with BRL. It took nine months of interviewing before she was offered a job. Whenever she went to be interviewed she was told by the man trying to hire her not to worry too much about the person interviewing her because they would soon be gone. Then one Sunday, three days before she was supposed to start work, she received a phone call from him asking if she still wanted the job because BRL was about to lay off nearly half of its staff. The company was on the verge of filing for bankruptcy. It was the first ever big layoff in biotechnology and reflected the financial squeeze that the sector was then experiencing. Versteegen was told that her would be employer had agreed that she could return to her previously negotiated position. Not being a person who went backwards, Versteegen decided to take the plunge.
Versteegen recalls that her first few days at BRL were very odd. Every time she was introduced to a person she wondered whether they would be around by the end of the week. In fact, many of them disappeared. In the next few weeks, she went through what she calls a ‘baptism of fire in management’. Within two weeks of her arrival she had gone from having ten people working under her to fifty. Part of the stress she was put under reflected the fact that the company was going through major restructuring under the direction of Fred Adler and was being merged with GIBCO, a subsidiary of the Dexter Corporation, before going on to become known as Life Technologies Inc. A new person was also brought in to head the company, M James Barrett, a microbiologist who had worked for the pharmaceutical company SmithKline. Over the next few years Versteegen would gain an opportunity through Life Technologies to work closely with the highly talented scientists Stanley N Cohen, Stanley Falcow and Richard Axel, renowned for their work on recombinant DNA.
By 1985 the company was producing and selling more than 3,000 products used in scientific and medical research, human health diagnostics and treatment, and for biotechnological and industrial applications. So successful was the company that by the mid-1990s Life Technologies, now led by Stark Thompson, was ranked third among 26 public biotechnology companies surveyed for profitability (Life Technologies).
In the end Versteegen stayed on with Life Technologies for 20 years. One of her first assignments was to set up a quality control department to oversee the company’s restriction enzymes and other related enzymes for molecular biology. This proved to be just the start of what she calls ‘very interesting and varied range of responsibilities’. At one point, she was working 10 days a month in the UK running a research and development group developing an automated microbial testing analyser. After that she became head of development and clinical affairs for a diagnostic, Virapap, for human papillomavirus (HPV) and was responsible for getting it approved by the FDA in 1988. She was subsequently put in charge of running a major manufacturing site, which involved the development of media for cultivating different types of cells for biopharmacuetical manufacturing.
By the time Versteegen left Life Technologies, in 2000, she had done nearly everything in management except for working in the legal and finance departments. For most of the time she was the only woman working in senior management, despite the fact that there were a lot of women working throughout the company and, in 1998, it was nominated one of the ten best companies to work for as a woman.
When Versteegen left Life Technologies she worked as an independent consultant for six years. In doing this work, she got to know Leland Foster, who persuaded her to help found and lead the International Serum Industry Association (ISIA). As the representative of the serum industry ISIA works to make sure the material is what it says it is, that it comes from where it says it is comes from, and that quality standards and regulations are stringently enforced.
Reflecting back on her career, Versteegen is struck by how few women have risen to run major laboratories despite the increasing number of women studying biomedical sciences. She attributes part of this to companies’ failure to recognise the valuable people skills women can bring to management and their emphasis on promoting those who are good at science. As she says, 'A great scientist is not necessarily a good manager!' At Life Technologies she worked with Thompson and others to address this by developing a dual track career system which allowed employees who were really good at science to focus on just that, and those who were better with people to progress with that part of the job. Versteegen also thinks that women, as well as many men, too often make the fundamental mistake of thinking that a scientific career just involves tinkering with test tubes. As she points out, this is not necessarily true. She stresses the need for people to keep their minds and options open.
Versteegen also realises that she was lucky in that she had the encouragement of her father in her early years, as well as that of her second husband. In addition, one of her early managers at Life Technologies was particularly good at persuading her to take more decisions, and was willing to back her up when she made mistakes. She considers such support particularly important for women, who as she points out often find it more difficult than men 'to take a stab at something a bit off the wall or risky’. On many occasions, she has found it possible to turn into stars some of her female employees who previously struggled because their managers were unwilling or unable to give them such support.
Of all the things she has done in her life, Versteegen is most proud of the work that she did to get the FDA approval for ViraPap, the first HPV diagnostic to win approval from the FDA for the genetic testing of HPV infections. Unlike the conventional Pap smear, which necessitated the visual examination of cervical cells to find abnormalities suggesting cancer, the new test used radioactive probes to detect signs of HPV infection.
Developed in collaboration with researchers across the world, ViraPap represented Life Technologies’ first venture in clinical diagnostics. Racing against competitors also trying to develop an HPV test, the project required a lot of organisation from the start, and needed close collaboration between different academics and clinicians involved in cytology-based cervical screening. Getting all the information from these different parties and then standing in front of an FDA panel for two days to secure approval was therefore a formidable challenge for Versteegen. Furthermore she had no one to call on for expertise within Life Technologies, because the company had never before sought approval for a diagnostic product from the regulator.
Despite being heralded as a significant milestone for Life Technologies, Virapap struggled commercially. This was in part because clinicians had yet to be convinced of the association between HPV and cervical cancer. In addition, it was more expensive than the Pap smear, the conventional test for cervical cancer. Yet ViraPap set an important precedent. By 2010 multiple studies had shown that HPV DNA tests outperformed Pap smears in identifying women with a high risk of developing severe cell abnormalities. In 2014 the FDA approved an HPV DNA test, developed by Roche Diagnostics, as a first-line primary screening test for use alone in women over the age of 25.(Agorastos, Sotiriadis, Chatzigeorgiou) Two years later the Netherlands switched to HPV testing instead of the Pap smear for its national cervical cancer screening programme. Australia and the U.K. are set to follow. Clinical trials are now underway in the US, Europe and Canada for home HPV testing.
In addition to the HPV test, Versteegen is proud of the part she played at Life Technologies in working with Genentech scientists in developing the cell culture medium initially used to cultivate its monoclonal antibodies for treating Her2 positive breast cancer. Versteegen’s sister is now alive as a result of this work, as she has benefited from trastuzumab (Herceptin), one of the drugs that emerged out of this project.
This profile was written by Lara Marks with generous input from Rosie Versteegen.
Life Technologies, Inc. History, http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/life-technologies-inc-history
T. Agorastos, A. Sotiriadis, Chatzigeorgiou, ‘Can HPV testing replace the pap smear?’ Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1205 (2010), 51-6.NIH, ‘Pap and HPV testing’, https://www.cancer.gov/types/cervical/pap-hpv-testing-fact-sheet
Respond to or comment on this page on our feeds on Facebook, Instagram, Mastodon or Twitter.