Conversations with Maya: George Yancopoulos
Maya Ajmera, President & CEO of the Society for Science and Publisher of Science News, chatted with George Yancopoulos, an alumnus and one of the top winners of the 1976 Science Talent Search. Yancopoulos is Regeneron’s Scientific Founder, President and Chief Scientific Officer. Regeneron is the title sponsor for two of the Society’s science competitions: the Regeneron Science Talent Search and the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair. The biotechnology company also supports the Society’s suite of outreach and equity programs.
You’re an alum of the 1976 Science Talent Search. How did the competition impact your life?
I can honestly say the competition changed my life. I was lucky enough to attend the esteemed Bronx High School of Science in New York City. Up until that point, my heroes were the typical sports heroes that many kids look up to. But at Bronx Science, people looked up to the winners of the Science Talent Search (STS), which was sponsored by Westinghouse at the time. I remember when I first went to the school, people would point to a student and say, “Hey, look, there goes a winner of the Westinghouse,” in a hushed, respectful way, similar to the way someone might point to a top football player at another high school.
And so I changed my goals and decided that I wanted to be a Westinghouse winner. When I was named an STS finalist, I met all these other amazing kids who were operating at a whole different level than I had ever seen. I didn’t think I belonged. When I was named one of the winners, it gave me confidence that maybe I could devote my life to doing science and using science to try to better the world.
Like me, you are a first-generation American. What effect did being the child of immigrants have on your education and early career?
I have many complex, layered views on what leads to success. I grew up in a poor, first-generation immigrant family. My parents never finished high school because of a war taking place in their home country of Greece. Many would view this as a great handicap. I saw the hunger of poverty and the challenge of being an immigrant. But I believe those experiences can be a great driver of success — especially if your parents, like mine, came to America specifically to give their children a better chance. I owe everything to my parents because they sacrificed everything to give me that chance. That experience gave me the drive and the discipline to succeed. I talk about this constantly with my own children: Affluence, which many consider privilege, can breed complacency.
History tells us that I’m just one of so many examples. Some of the greatest innovators and success stories in America started in poor immigrant homes.
Regeneron has taken on a wide array of diseases from eczema to Ebola to cancer to COVID-19. How does the company decide what challenges to focus on?
Regeneron is very different from almost every other biotech and pharmaceutical company in that we don’t start by trying to cure any specific disease. It always starts with us trying to take advantage of a new scientific or technological advancement — or applying our own expertise or new tech — which we can then imagine being used to cure disease. For example, when I was a graduate student I had an idea about making a mouse with a human immune system, which would enable us to challenge the mouse with diseases like Ebola or COVID-19. If the mouse survived, it survived because its immune system beat the disease. So we could use a platform like that — a genetically humanized immune system in a mouse — and then repeatedly challenge it with diseases like Ebola or COVID, and let the animal come up with the cure. Because it’s using genetically humanized components, we can clone the cure and give it to humans. That’s where a lot of our treatments come from.
Every single one of our approved medicines has been discovered in-house by our scientists using our own technologies. And those technologies are amenable to addressing multiple diseases. So whether it be eczema or COVID-19, we have technology in place that we have been building for decades that could allow us to quickly go in there and develop a treatment.
Regeneron has nine treatments approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and one FDA-authorized treatment, which is an unusually high number for a biotech company. What has contributed to Regeneron’s success?
It starts with the people. Regeneron is a very unusual company in many ways. We’re a company that was launched by physician scientists and is run primarily by scientists, which contributes to our culture. I think there should be more companies that are started and run by scientists. When a company is founded by physician scientists, it’s being led by people who have taken an oath. Regeneron’s motto comes from my partner Len Schleifer’s father: Do well by doing good.
We don’t go after diseases by how much money can be made. Regeneron considers whether we can make an impact on a disease and help change people’s lives.
A lot of science around COVID-19 has become highly politicized. How has Regeneron worked within that politicized climate?
Our way of life — our lives themselves — are threatened by this pandemic, and the biopharmaceutical industry has responded by creating two very complementary classes of medicines: one, the vaccines, and two, therapeutics like our monoclonal antibody cocktail. What a great success story in record time.
I’m not sure exactly how this happened, but it seems to me like one political group is much more focused on widespread vaccination and not talking so much about monoclonal antibody treatments, and the other political side became more focused on treatments, even perhaps ignoring vaccines.
But really society now has two complementary, synergistic — and equally necessary — approaches to COVID-19, and we should be valuing them both. We shouldn’t be breaking them down by political affiliations. We should be saying, this is an amazing toolkit of approaches that science has brought us, and they are all saving lives.
You, Len and Regeneron have made a significant investment in young people through your support of the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, as well as multiple outreach and equity initiatives. Why is this a priority for Regeneron?
Frankly, I think there’s nothing more important for humanity. We believe students are our most valuable resource. We have to find the best and the brightest, who are often ignored in today’s society.
Out of our more than $100 million commitment to STS, more than a third of it is going to increase the opportunities and the outreach for schools in underserved communities. This is about finding the next Albert Einstein. Our future existence depends on it. We have true existential threats. We saw how devastating a pandemic can be, and we have new epidemics that are coming down the pike.
What advice do you give to young people?
Don’t take your life for granted. You have to do something with your life to make it all worthwhile, to pay back everyone who came before you. That’s your duty. I think that young people have to understand that we have a duty and obligation to pay back all of humanity that got us here, and we have an obligation to pay it forward. To do that, there needs to be an incredible emphasis on education, drive and trying to do your best.
There are many challenges in the world today. What is keeping you up at night right now?
I worry about the climate, the environment and food supply. I’m not happy with the current approaches and technologies, and don’t believe the green energy sources that we have in place are going to be sufficient. I’ve encouraged my kids to go into these areas, and I actually am thinking that if I’m going to add another thing to my life, it is going to be to figure out a way to really help and jump-start new research in these areas because I think our world is being destroyed and we have to do better.