Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

We are thrilled to have the opportunity to sit down with Slavica Tudzarova for an exclusive interview in Grey Journal, where she shares her profound journey from a child inspired by her entrepreneur father in the Macedonian pharmaceutical industry to becoming a trailblazer in cell biology and pharmacology. Slavica’s unique blend of research acumen and entrepreneurial spirit, honed across prestigious institutions and through the co-founding of Metanoia Bio Inc., illuminates her path of fearlessly combining scientific research with business acumen. Her story is not just about the pursuit of scientific excellence but also about bridging diverse cultures and disciplines to drive innovation in biotechnology. Delve into her entrepreneurial journey, marked by resilience, discipline, and a passion for solving complex biological problems.

1. Could you recount a defining moment in your early years that played a crucial role in shaping your path as an entrepreneur?

Looking back on my childhood, I was most influenced by my father, who was a very successful and established entrepreneur in the Macedonian pharmaceutical industry. Early on, I acquired proficiency in different languages and accompanied him on his business trips where I proved useful in personally translating for my father. That particular image of a small, shy girl, whose eyes were filled with pride in her father, rose up over all the imperfections. The wisdom I gleaned from him will stay with me forever. 

Moreover, I experienced my own enantiodromia, starting with a sole focus on research and evolving into an interest in entrepreneurship. My father’s dream was that one day, I would join him in further developing his company. He didn’t live long enough to see that dream through. However, his influence on me emerged from my subconscious after his death. The memory of his jovial and charismatic personality, his hard work and success, and his powerful words gave me the courage to pursue an unusual professional trajectory combining my research with entrepreneurship fearlessly and undeterred.

2. You have a rich background in cell biology and pharmacology. How has your personal journey influenced your career choices and your approach to research?

Coming from a small country in Southern Europe, North Macedonia, I always had to put in maximal effort to adopt a competitive skillset: a unique kind of knowledge and expertise to work in the most prestigious research institutions in the world. I first joined the Medical University in Vienna, Austria, for my PhD and later University College London (UCL) as a post-doctoral scholar. My journey comprised of not only learning the necessary technical skills but also absorbing diverse cultures and developing resilience and persistence through exposure to art and history. 

Although I am supported by a rational and structured approach as a scientist, I always pondered and ultimately made choices in an intuitive way. This can be compared with the process of crystallization: accumulating knowledge was like “adding salt into water” to the point of spontaneous crystallization or the spontaneous meeting of “choice”.  For example, after completing an oral exam for defending my Master Thesis at Vienna University, passing along the corridor of the Department of Pharmacology, I noticed a poster advertising an opening for a PhD position at the Cancer Institute. I had about five hours before my return flight to Macedonia so I visited the Institute, introduced myself, and negotiated the time to begin my PhD studies on the very same day. There was a new scientific term on the poster that attracted me, and it was “apoptosis”, a term that originates from the Greek name for “falling of petals” from a flower and is used to depict programmed cell death. In about 6 months, I started my PhD focusing on the role of apoptosis in cancer development. 

photo by Bradford Rogne

3. You’re proficient in multiple languages. How does this skill enhance your work in the international scientific community?

Yes, I am fortunate to have developed fluency in many languages. One would think that this skill would help one in the international scientific community. But probably not in the way one would expect. The international scientific community is English-speaking, for the most part. I learned languages as a means to establish cross-cultural understanding, to sharpen my experiences no matter my location, and to better engage with my colleagues, many of whom spoke English as a second language, just like me. I saw language as a powerful bridge that would allow me to adapt quicker when constantly relocating, to bring me closer to my new friends, and colleagues, including their fascinating lifestyles as researchers and people. 

4. Balancing roles at the University of California-Los Angeles and your co-founding responsibilities at Metanoia Bio Inc must be challenging. How do you manage your time and maintain productivity in both areas?

Building a family while relocating to different countries and continuously learning and advancing my skills taught me the discipline and resilience to get through trying moments. My long-term goals also depended on the mastery of that discipline. Discipline made the co-existence of my family and continuous education bearable and even pleasant despite the various obstacles. That same discipline makes the dual responsibilities of my academic research and Metanoia Bio both possible and fruitful.

5. You’ve focused on critical areas like oncologic toxicology and beta cell regeneration. What drives your passion for these specific fields?

Through a very empirical process and an unusual life journey, I realized that my scientific approach is best informed through a broad perspective. I started out with cancer research but when the time came, I didn’t shy away from beta-cell biology and endocrinology. I believed that my thought process would be truly stimulated when encountering opposing scientific questions. However, in reality, I was primarily trained to think hard and long before asking a relevant scientific question. I learned that the ultimate power of the result in any field (be it oncology beta-cell regeneration or even others) depends foremost on the scientific question at hand. A scientific question, paradoxically, focuses on imagining or designing an outcome after scrutinizing an observation in nature which then informs the experimental design. That, in turn, helps you to reverse the phenomena to their origin; this is truly a fascinating and powerful process if harnessed right! The training that I received, in this sense, from Drs. Gareth Williams, Kai Stoeber, and multiple Nobel prize nominees, Sir Salvador Moncada at UCL in the UK, facilitated the cross-over of different disciplines in my career.

6. You’ve been part of academia and also co-founded a biotech platform. How do you navigate the differences between academic research and entrepreneurial biotech ventures?

Academic research and biotech ventures are two very different entities. Academic research is dependent on bureaucracy which means that for example, the research and drug discovery program can be slowed down by insufficient funding or funding that is received late in the process. Thus, academics often turn into fundraisers and lose their focus on the research and innovation. Commercialization of the research product is stigmatized in the research community because of the potential for conflicts of interest. Academics are encouraged to share their discoveries with the wider scientific community prior to securing IP protection which means that their discoveries are vulnerable to third parties seizing the opportunity to commercialize their research products. 

I try to reconcile these differences by outsourcing the funding shortages with collaborations. Securing additional, non-governmental funding, is vital. Synchronizing IP protection in a timely manner and publishing the discoveries go hand in hand through consultation with UCLA IP Department and with Metanoia’s affiliated IP offices.   

Looking at this question through the lens of my personal evolution, I could make an analogy: in the first (academia), I dwell like a fish in water, and in the second (entrepreneurship), I like a reptilian that lives in the water and yet learns how to confidently step on land. The first is a pleasant swim and the second has a flavor of the unknown and a challenge. I learned that both can be part of the same professional habitat, the same one I now feel most suited for. 

7. Reflecting on your career, is there a piece of advice you would give to your younger self at the start of your journey?

I would tell my younger self not to be anxious and frightened of failures and unexpected turns. I would tell myself that I should try to keep a forward momentum without discerning the future while concentrating on every single step.

With relentless attention and precision, innovation becomes an organic part of my work and leads to more artful experiences in living. The only thing that matters in this process is to prevail – that’s my advice!

8. Your profile reflects a strong commitment to understanding complex biological systems. Outside of work, what are your passions or hobbies that also require a deep understanding of strategic thinking?

I am very passionate about thinking and analysis. I often joke that I have been commissioned to investigate a “case” in my research, much like a detective would. However, I feed my analytical faculties by engaging actively with art and culture such as literature, acting, writing, dancing, and contemplating life in the beautiful Californian wilderness. My other passion is to travel the world and find ways to appreciate other approaches to life. So, my analytical and artistic sides are co-dependent, and my deep understanding and creative thinking reflect their complementarity.

9. Metanoia Bio Inc. focuses on functional cell regeneration. Can you discuss the primary challenges and opportunities you foresee in this domain over the next five years?

In health, functional cell regeneration is based on the constant replacement of damaged, old, and dysfunctional cells with healthy and functional cells. The recognition and replacement are based on relative fitness differences between the cells, which is very similar to societal categories of wealth: resources (proteins), energy (metabolism), and infrastructure (mitochondria). We discovered the molecular mechanisms by which a healthy cell can recognize a dysfunctional neighboring cell and how certain pathological conditions can mitigate this process, leading to age-related and chronic diseases such as diabetes.  

The primary challenge lies in the fact that the scientific mindset is not yet ready to sufficiently acknowledge the idea of an evolutionarily conserved way in which tissue can physiologically renew itself based on natural selection within the same cell collection in the tissue. The reason for this somewhat underappreciated approach is that the evidence primarily stems from murine models of disease that, although partly capable of recapitulating human pathology, are still far from human design. In the next year or so, our research will focus on designing experiments that will demonstrate this tissue phenomenon in human islets and capture its temporary nature in real time. That is to say that every novel approach must withstand the test of science, the test of its effect on humans, and the test of the small molecule (medicine) to specifically recapitulate the preclinical results (e.g. functional cell regeneration) without causing adverse effects in humans. Optimally, all three will be demonstrated in the indicated order.

That is why a “scientific sobriety” and reevaluations of the process of drug development, taking into consideration even the negligible inconsistencies or discrepancies, and constantly seeking optimal solutions are needed to enhance the chance of application of this novel therapeutic approach.

Upon perfecting this approach, the breadth of opportunities will be truly fascinating. First, since this is a universally applicable tissue principle, the successful medical application in diabetes will open doors for other age-related and chronic diseases such as neurodegeneration and heart failure.

10. Looking at the current global health challenges, where do you see the biggest need for innovation in pharmacology and drug discovery?

Global health challenges remain age-related and chronic diseases, for example, diabetes and neurodegeneration, as well as cardiovascular diseases and infections. The biggest need for innovation in pharmacology and drug discovery remains specific and selective targeting of the pathologic cell population without affecting the whole system, and a need to provide a cure rather than a symptomatologic relief.  Every curative approach is closer to success if administered preventatively before the disease progression, which is a premise for innovative approaches in pharmacology and drug discovery. Recent reports indicate that the business model of the top twenty biopharma companies in recent years to respond to the unmet needs has largely been built on external innovation, with only twenty-eight percent of recently FDA-approved drugs being either invented or developed internally. Biotech companies were the most important originators of innovation (half of all new drugs) with a strong focus on small-molecule drugs.

More than ever, there is a need for cross-industry ventures that bring together academia, biotech, and Big Pharma, thus shaping the all-integrated pharmaceutical R&D landscape in the coming decades. For example, emerging therapeutic modalities such as gene therapies and cell therapies have shown transformational efficacy, yet scalability and reimbursement remain challenging. In the coming years, bear markets could limit biotechs’ access to public markets and may intensify early biotech–pharma and cross-industry interactions.

 I think that therefore, the question lies in so far as how to flexibly leverage these evolving dynamics across therapeutic modalities and disease indications. This will be a key challenge for emerging and leading biopharma companies.

11. Discuss a time when a research project did not go as planned. What did you learn, and how did it change your approach to future projects?

So-called U-turns and unexpected twists in ongoing projects are constantly happening and although counterintuitive, they play a driving role in innovation. It is both an ethical and strategic imperative not to position yourself above the results of a well-controlled experiment. One example involves targeting metabolism in our drug discovery program. During the early days of the project, we believed that the stress-induced metabolic remodeling of beta-cells in diabetes is protective. However, when we generated the genetic knockout of the metabolic gene of interest in diabetic mice, we realized that the changes in the metabolism favored the survival of only damaged beta-cells which led to the discovery of a novel drug target in diabetes.  So, we learned that we needed studies designed to address difficult questions, to listen better, to give merit to different opinions, and to answer those “difficult” questions. Here, no “shortcuts” are allowed! 

If there is a pressing shortage of manpower, resources, and/or funding, we are pushed to envisage creative solutions and not to end up with excuses for negligence or ignoring an obstacle. Since not everything can be covered by one Lab’s expertise, outsourcing different collaborations, relying on constant scrutiny, and ongoing quality assessments are key. 

12. Collaboration is crucial in science and entrepreneurship. Can you share an experience where cross-disciplinary collaboration led to a breakthrough or significant advancement in your work?

During my time at Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research at University College London, I was a part of a cross-disciplinary project that brought together Chromosomal Replication Group (led by Gareth Williams and Kai Stoeber) and Cancer Metabolism (led by Sir Salvador Moncada) with a UK non-profit in Drug Discovery, Cancer Research UK Technologies which enabled translation and development of first-in-class Cdc7 inhibitors that were later licensed to Teva Pharmaceuticals.  

The previous work only primed me for a journey of scientific and entrepreneurial experience that took time to mature. I can confidently admit that my maturity was achieved through lots of “growing pains”:  failures, ups and downs, uncertainties, and endlessly postponed stability and fulfillment. And yet, achieving maturity is transformative and ultimately opens exciting opportunities for strong scientific and entrepreneurial collaborations. It makes us swift to recognize opportunities, set up a workable plan, to design a path to streamlined contributions, and motivate others until an objective is achieved. If I may say, the goal is creating a leadership-in-flow, one that transforms each person into a leader in his/her microcosm of expertise! Dr. Wadhwa (Columbia Business School) designated this process as “Inner Mastery-Outer Impact”. 

I need to emphasize how happy I was when our UCLA Lab was joined by an expert in Drug 

Discovery, Dr. Kavit Raval from India. We are proud that now we have achieved collaborations with key opinion leaders in diabetes and cancer, bioinformatics, and the design of AI autosapient tools.  

13. How does your work contribute to the broader goals of public health, and what impact do you hope to achieve through your research and ventures?

Our initial focus is on diabetes type-1 and 2 therapeutic. Type-2 diabetes by itself is a metabolic epidemic that affects at least 6% of the global population, almost half a billion people worldwide. According to the International Diabetes and World Health Organizations, diabetes has a vast economic impact, accounting for 12% of global health expenditure. We are developing a therapy that will treat early-onset diabetes and prevent it from deteriorating into a full-blown disease. If successful, the impact would be mirrored in the size of the population affected and the extension of that size into the economic burden. 

In addition, the preventative character of our therapy is designed to reduce the economic burden of diabetes co-morbidities such as cardiomyopathy, retinopathy, nephropathy, and others. We are developing small molecule inhibitors which unlike gene or cell therapies are bound to low cost, easy manufacturing, and with this a possibility to make it readily accessible indiscriminately to all.  

14. In the rapidly evolving field of biotechnology, how do you stay ahead of the curve and continuously innovate?

portrait by Bradford Rogne

The high pace of innovation with a constantly shorter learning curve and facilitated market entry of biotech companies with seed capital investments despite weaker markets creates a very competitive space for biotech companies. 

Once you achieve a mature and transformative stage in your work, owed to resilience and creativity, perpetuating an innovation in different niches and fields becomes easier. I finally have the opportunity to leverage my diverse scientific background in cancer, diabetes, metabolism, and drug development. What started as a shifting focus from different disease models turned into an informed viewpoint that goes beyond one disease model. Innovating, to me, means a strong belief in recognizing previously unseen opportunities and nurturing a strong conviction to build those opportunities into something worthwhile. 

15. The line between innovative treatment and ethical concerns can sometimes be thin in biotechnology. How do you navigate these complexities in your work, especially in areas like stem cell research?

The technology to trigger functional cell regeneration is not based on stem cells, and we utilize a small molecule inhibitor to unlock the enrichment of tissue with fully functional cells in the context of disease (diabetes). 

Nevertheless, I believe in strict ethical scrutiny in navigating complexities in innovation such as experiments involving stem cells or AI autosapient agents. That scrutiny should be well aligned with the objective of the innovation in the first place to help the beautiful, diverse, and rich “global family” of humanity. First, we need to agree that the objective of innovation goes beyond the temporary spectacle of success; it is in fact the main ingredient of humanity’s long-term progress. The end goal is always to facilitate healing, bonding, and development while bringing more smiles and enrichment. This can create a space for healthy progress. 

16. The cost of drug development and treatment can be prohibitively high. How do you address the criticism that life-saving treatments are often inaccessible to the underprivileged?

I won’t sugarcoat it; I think this is a huge problem. Therapeutic modalities such as gene therapies and cell therapies have truly shown transformational efficacy but the issue of their scalability, reimbursement, and access to the underprivileged has not been resolved. The raw cost of these therapies may be much lower but once the technology is licensed to big pharma, some of which are driven by greed and stock price, the cost of these therapies makes them non-elective by the insurance and thus not accessible to the underprivileged. I think developing funding opportunities (e.g. from NIH and other funding agencies) to encourage creative ideas and solutions to close the gap, redistribution of government funding to secure reimbursement and access to the underprivileged as well as developing policies and measures should go hand in hand with developing innovative technologies. Also, supporting biotech initiatives in which the cost of manufacturing these novel technologies/products will be reduced or subsidized so that ultimately, they end up inaccessible and insurance-reimbursable products may work well.

17. There’s a debate about the role of academia in commercial ventures. How do you respond to the view that commercial interests might undermine the integrity of academic research?

It is important to recognize that not every project in academia is suited to translation and some projects shouldn’t leave academia as they aren’t ready for commercialization. There are differences in the speed and innovation between academia and commercial ventures although at a surface level, they seem coherent and aligned. Academia’s approach is slow-burning and perpetually waiting to be tested by scientific peers while commercial ventures tend to be under the “spell” or the pressing need for commercialization of the technology. These two have also completely different risk profiles. The premise of a business to provide a superior solution is to go to market ASAP. In other words, you can’t solve “any problem” with the offered solution before you go ‘live’. The commercialization has to be carefully approached and executed while also carefully balancing the risks and all the time maintaining integrity. In that sense, both academia and commercial ventures need to consolidate their differences, find a middle ground, and work together towards an enhanced chance of success.  

Therefore, I see it as a problem of a “bad” marriage versus a “good” marriage. Academia and commercial ventures may represent a “good marriage” if the rules and regulations of the middle ground are put in place early on and there is no space for doubt or deviation left open. 

18. It’s been enlightening to hear about your journey and insights. For our audience who wish to learn more or engage with your work, what are the best platforms or means to connect with you or follow your contributions?

Thank you for the opportunity to share my professional story and life journey!

Please reach out to our Website metanoia.bio for more information. More information about my work can be found on my LinkedIn page, Metanoia’s LinkedIn page, and by contacting me at slavica@metanoia.bio or studzarova@mednet.ucla.edu.

We extend our thanks to Slavica Tudzarova for sharing her insightful journey with us. Her contributions to biotechnology and entrepreneurship are truly inspirational. We invite our readers to comment or share their thoughts on Slavica’s innovative work. Your engagement enriches our community’s conversation around the significant impact of biotechnology in today’s world.