From The Editor | December 9, 2014

WIB Profile: Nektar Therapeutics Develops Drug Candidates with Improved Patient Benefits

By Ed Miseta, Chief Editor, Clinical Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @EdClinical


As a Scientist II at Nektar Therapeutics, Vidula Dixit-Duarte has a wide range of responsibilities from laboratory scientist to project team lead to new product concept analyst. Nektar has a robust pipeline of products based on its advanced polymer conjugate technology. The company also partners with top pharma and biopharmaceutical companies to help bring new products and product advancements to market. The company’s technology and drug expertise has resulted in nine approved products in the United States or Europe through partnerships with leading biopharmaceutical companies. For those reasons and more, we chose to feature Vidula Dixit-Duarte in this installment of our Women in Bio profile.  

Ed Miseta: Can you tell us about your background and how you became a preclinical drug discovery scientist at Nektar?

Vidula Dixit-Duarte, Scientist II, Nektar Therapeutics
Vidula Dixit-Duarte, Scientist II, Nektar Therapeutics

Vidula Dixit-Duarte: After completing my master’s degree in microbiology at the University of Mumbai in India, I was drawn to the idea of ‘finding a cure’ and joined Hoechst Marion Roussel’s Natural Product Drug Discovery research. I then completed my Ph.D. in microbiology, specializing in the discovery of novel antifungal agents from microbial sources. My post-doctoral work at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was in the area of macromolecular therapeutics. In that field, we use macromolecules, including DNA, RNA and proteins, as therapeutic agents – for example, as gene therapy, antisense and siRNA therapeutics. While completing my post-doctoral research, I joined Nektar to initiate and lead a new effort in the area of siRNA delivery using Nektar’s proprietary technology.

Miseta: Please tell us about your company and what you do there.

Dixit-Duarte: Nektar Therapeutics is a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company developing a pipeline of drug candidates using our polymer conjugation platform. Our pipeline consists of drug candidates across a number of therapeutic areas, including oncology, pain, anti-infectives and immunology. Our research and development activities involve small molecule drugs, peptides and other potential biologic drug candidates. These drug candidates are designed to improve the pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, half-life, bioavailability, metabolism or distribution of drugs to ultimately improve the overall benefits of a drug for the patient. During my six years with Nektar, my role has continued to be multifaceted. As a team lead of preclinical projects, I am accountable for project goals, results, timelines and budgets. I ensure that experimental designs meet the team’s needs and that projects advance. I develop and manage strategic relationships with CROs, key opinion leaders and consultants, and I present data at scientific and medical conferences. I keep the executive team advised of project progress and issues. As a hands-on laboratory scientist, I conduct molecular and cellular biology experiments that are relevant to our ongoing projects, which include receptor pharmacology, cellular signaling and gene expression. Finally, I do in-depth analysis of new product ideas, wherein we assess the technical feasibility, unmet need, commercial potential, and the clinical and regulatory path of potential new products.

Miseta: How are these improvements to the drug relevant?

Dixit-Duarte: For example, in the case of NKTR-102, which is being evaluated to treat for breast cancer, we have dramatically improved how long the drug stays in the patient. This allows for infrequent dosing, which is very convenient for the patient. In the case of recently-approved Movantik, we used Nektar’s “smart pharmacology” technology to develop a drug that blocks the binding of opioids to opioid receptors in tissues such as the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. By keeping opioids out of the GI tract, Movantik prevents GI side effects.    

Miseta: Are there any therapeutic areas in which we are seeing the greatest advancements?

Dixit-Duarte: Nektar’s greatest contribution has been in the area of pain, especially with the recent approval of Movantik, which treats opioid-induced constipation.  We were also granted Fast-track status by the FDA for NKTR-181, a pain killer with a lowered risk of abuse that is entering a Phase 3 trial. Additionally, there is an ongoing effort at Nektar to address neuropathic pain. We also are interested in developing treatments for orphan diseases.

Miseta: You mentioned your company is performing work on pain medications. How are you making these narcotics less prone to abuse?

Dixit-Duarte: The site of action for most drugs used to treat severe pain is in the brain, but this is also the site of action for addiction, which ultimately leads to drug abuse. Addiction and drug abuse result from fast entry of the drug into the brain giving the so called ‘high or pleasurable effect.’ Nektar scientists are using small molecular weight polymers to create new molecular entities that diffuse across the blood brain barrier at a slow rate, thereby avoiding the ‘high.’

Miseta: Can you tell me what prompted you to join WIB?

Dixit-Duarte: I was looking for an opportunity to meet and network with talented professional women in the San Francisco Bay area. I was also interested in WIB’s excellent monthly educational and networking events.   

Miseta: Can you tell us what you most enjoy about being a member of Women in Bio (WIB)?

Dixit-Duarte: The most enjoyable part of being a WIB member is the opportunity to meet some wonderful women. The monthly events are very informative, inspirational and geared toward helping women progress in their careers. I have been a volunteer for WIB since I joined about a year and a half ago. I also helped establish the MAPs (Mentors Advisors and Peers) program for the SF-chapter, which is now fully operational. In this program, members are paired with experienced mentors to receive invaluable career advice. Members are also placed in a peer group to meet like-minded women to share thoughts and experiences.