By Neal Reid
Special to the
Opelika Observer

Katie Tombrello has wasted little time putting her Auburn doctoral degree to good use.

The Georgia native may have graduated with her doctorate in biochemistry less than a year ago, but she already is making a name for herself as she serves on the front lines of the coronavirus battle. Tombrello, who graduated in December, is hard at work as a tech development research specialist for Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, a patient-focused, values-based, R&D-driven global biopharmaceutical company headquartered in Japan that is “committed to bringing Better Health and a Brighter Future to people worldwide.”

Tombrello works at Takeda’s site in Social Circle, Georgia, just 20 miles from her hometown of Conyers, and has been spending the last few months tackling the confounding puzzle that is COVID-19. Her team has been tasked with developing a treatment for high-risk individuals who have contracted the disease, and Tombrello says the work is both daunting and exhilarating.

“I would say the most challenging part about this project is how fast we are having to move,” said Tombrello, who started at Takeda in October before taking part in graduation ceremonies. “Usually, it takes quite a while to develop a medication like this, and we are having to do it as quickly as possible, so that is very tough in the pharma world. However, everyone on the team is all in and willing to do anything they need to do to make this project a success.”

Tombrello said the treatment her team is developing uses plasma—the clear, straw-colored liquid portion of blood that remains after red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and other cellular components are removed. Plasma-derived hyperimmune therapies have previously been shown to be effective in the treatment of severe viral respiratory infections like COVID-19.

“Takeda has been involved with plasma-derived therapies for more than 75 years,” Tombrello said, who is leading her team’s efforts in the lab. “This treatment works by concentrating the pathogen-specific antibodies from plasma that is collected from recovered COVID-19 patients. By transferring the antibodies to a new patient, it could potentially help that person’s immune system respond to the infection and increase their chance of recovery.”

The coronavirus, Tombrello says, is a particularly difficult foe to fight.

“It is crazy how fast it is infecting people,” she said.

Tombrello’s path to biochemistry was far from a straight line.

“I actually had planned to go to dental school, but I shadowed at a dentist’s office and decided that was not for me,” she said. “I majored in biochemistry because that was the quickest track to becoming a dentist, but I honestly was not a huge fan of biochemistry in undergrad. So I frantically was trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life since I always thought I would go to dental school.”

Tombrello –– who graduated with a biochemistry degree from Berry College in Rome, Georgia, in 2014 –– was unsure what was next for her, until her undergrad roommate made a suggestion.

“My college roommate was planning on going for her master’s in forestry at Auburn and told me I should apply for their chemistry program,” said Tombrello, who played softball at Berry. “So that’s what I did. I honestly fell in love with the place, and my first year there I met my husband, Robby.”

That twist of fate led to another one after Tombrello began her studies at Auburn, and she met a mentor who would change her life profoundly.

“When I did decide to go to Auburn, I was very hesitant because I did not love science, so I didn’t know how I would like to pursue a Ph.D. in something that I didn’t immediately fall in love with,” she said. “However, once I met with my principal investigator, Holly Ellis, to decide if I would like to join her lab or not, I immediately knew that’s the lab I wanted to be in. She made biochemistry fun again. Her personality is very similar to mine, and we clicked almost immediately.

“She always pushed me and always saw the potential in me that I never really knew was there. I can honestly say that, if I hadn’t joined her lab, I do not know if I would have stuck it out and gotten my Ph.D.”

Ellis, the William P. Molette Professor of chemistry and biochemistry, immediately saw Tombrello’s potential and remembers her strong work ethic from her days in that Auburn lab.

“Katie worked on a very challenging project in the lab that was a new direction for our group,” Ellis said, a professor at Auburn since 2001. “There were not a lot of standard lab protocols for her to turn to for guidance. As with many graduate student projects, there were times where she would run into difficulties with various experimental procedures.

“What always impressed me about Katie is how she approached these problems. She did not give up or become discouraged. Katie worked to find alternative solutions and never backed down from the challenge. Her positive attitude, combined with her determination, is the hallmark of an exceptional scientist.”

Near the end of her doctoral work, Tombrello applied for the position at Takeda and was delighted to get the job. Ellis, for one, was not surprised to learn her former student had been selected to head up the lab work so soon after joining the pharmaceutical giant.

“I am confident her perseverance is why she was selected for her current project after having only worked at Takeda for a short time,” Ellis said. “I am extremely proud of Katie. She is an exceptional role model for others and is a perfect example of how hard work and dedication can lead to exciting opportunities.”

Tombrello hit the ground running at Takeda, leaning on her new co-workers for support and guidance. Now faced with the monumental task of developing a COVID-19 treatment, she feels reassured to be working with such a strong team of dedicated people.

“This project has been a huge learning curve for me, and I have also met several people around the globe that work for Takeda that I would have never had the opportunity to meet if it wasn’t for this project,” Tombrello said. “These people will continue to be a huge part of my career and will definitely help my development here at Takeda.”

Ellis described Tombrello as “one of the kindest individuals I have ever met,” a sentiment that falls in line with Tombrello’s answer about what fuels her desire to help ease the suffering of COVID-19 patients.

“I have always wanted to have a job that makes an impact on others and helps people in need,” Tombrello said. “Takeda is a huge company that really strives on putting its patients first, and that is one of my favorite aspects about the company. They really do care about the quality of their treatments so that they can give the best life to their patients who are counting on them.

“I hope that from this research we are able to find a medication that is successful and that will hopefully change the lives of those individuals effected by COVID-19. Hopes of this is what keeps me motivating during the long, tiring hours, knowing that one day our therapy could save the lives of many.”