Alumna Creates Hope for Cancer Patients

When she made it to the college as a wide-eyed freshman, Jacqueline Lackey ’87  thought she’d be setting herself up for a career as a marine biologist.

She ended up doing something with far greater human impact: She’s spent the last 20 years conducting clinical trials on drugs that have and are putting cancer patients on the path to remission.

“You can work your entire career and not have a successful drug,” she says. “But when you work on a drug that’s saving lives, it’s a really amazing experience.”

Lackey is the director of clinical development at Agensys, a Santa Monica, Calif.–based oncological research and development company. Her role is an important one: She’s responsible for conducting clinical trials in the U.S. and Canada and getting potentially life-saving drugs to the point of phase 2 and 3 human trials.

Jacqueline Lackey ’87 is the director of clinical development at a cancer research company.            (Photos by Mike Ledford)

“I focus on getting the right drugs into the right patients,” she says. “I’m responsible for writing the protocol and testing in patients and collaborating with researchers who are the top in their field.”

But Lackey will tell you – this wasn’t what she had in mind when she came to the College in the 1980s. Like many ocean-loving students, she was attracted to the College’s marine biology program and wanted to spend a life studying the sea’s creatures. But when she got to campus, professors in the department convinced her to widen her scientific net.

“Marine biology professors convinced me to be more of a generalist, so I ended up being a biochemistry major instead,” she says.

A lecturer from the University of Georgia got her interested in drug development while she was a student at the College. But Lackey didn’t give up her dreams of marine biology so quickly. Once she graduated, she took a job with the National Marine Fisheries Services. After a few years of working there,
she decided to go to graduate school to study pharmaceutics.

After she graduated, she landed a job as a chemist for a biotechnology company in Seattle. The nature of the clinical research industry, however, values apprenticeship-style career progression. So, Lackey had to prod researchers to give her a chance for more than a year before they opened the proverbial doors of the lab to her.

“It was one of those jobs that you have to know how to do it before you can do it,” she says.

Lackey’s been working in clinical research ever since. She traded in Seattle’s rainy weather for Southern California sunshine in the 1990s, but hasn’t stopped working on cancer-fighting drugs.

“I love the work; it’s intellectually stimulating,” she says. “And what I do matters.”

And her contributions have made a difference. Currently, she’s working with drugs for late-stage patients who would otherwise be out of options. And at a previous firm, she was involved in the development of a breast cancer drug, Herceptin, that, at the time, constituted the biggest advance in fighting the disease in many years.

“When they presented the data from the trial, it was like a rock concert,” she says. “When they saw the numbers, there were people cheering and crying in the room.”

Sure, the version of herself that came to the College hoping to be a marine biologist never could have foreseen a life doing clinical trials in oncology drugs. But that young woman wouldn’t find her older self unrecognizable.

Lackey says she still has a love for the sea: she scuba dives and spends her fair share of time in the water.

“I live in California and work in Santa Monica, so I get to go to the ocean quite often,” she laughs.