Inaugural Lorraine Cross Award winners on moving forward

Drs. Katherine High and Jean Bennett are strong advocates for women in science

Inaugural Lorraine Cross Award winners on moving forward

Sanford Health News is catching up with the very first winners of the 2018 Sanford Lorraine Cross Award.

For their work in creating a path for genetic treatments for blindness and other devastating diseases, research partners Drs. Katherine High and Jean Bennett won the inaugural $1 million Sanford Lorraine Cross in 2018 at a ceremony in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Watch video: Inaugural Lorraine Cross Award winners: Where are they now?

During our interview in May, we asked what they’re up to.

Life since recognition

“The award totally energized me. I went right back into super drive,” Dr. Bennett said.

Dr. Bennett’s lab was pretty thrilled, too, having been present from the moment they learned their leader was a nominee.

“We were driven to try to continue the progress, try and develop a gene therapy for other forms of blindness which we have continue to do. We are now at the point where we have two clinical trials that are pending. There are some delays due to COVID-19 but they’re not too far off from our predicted track. We’re excited about that. The award also gave me the opportunity to develop some additional paradigms which I’d never be able to do otherwise.”

One of which is to develop additional outcome measures to determine whether or not a treatment is working.

“The opportunity to move things along faster has been great thanks to the Sanford Lorraine Cross Award,” Dr. Bennett said. “And I’ve had an opportunity to spend a lot more time mentoring a lot of trainees. And pushing them to develop their fields which will hopefully, ultimately improve healthcare for different populations of people. It’s been a tremendous opportunity to expand our efforts and to make a difference.”

Listen now: Sanford Lorraine Cross Award podcast

Following the Lorraine Cross Award, clinical investigation and gene therapy programming work continued with Spark Therapeutics for a few more months. Dr. High co-founded the Philadelphia-based gene therapy company in September 2014. In December 2019, Spark was acquired by Roche.

“In February 2020, I left the company. I’m currently doing a sabbatical at Rockefeller University in NY,” Dr. High explained. “Of course, I had planned for that to be on-site but given COVID-19, I am doing that sabbatical virtually, mostly in my living room. That’s turned out to be a little different than I expected. It’s been a good opportunity to figure out what to do next, where to turn my efforts next. It’s given me time to do a little writing of review articles and planning.”

In 2019, Drs. Bennett and High watched as the work of their fellow nominee, Dr. Brian Kaspar, crossed the finish line with federal approvals in the United States and Europe. Through revolutionary research in gene therapy, and his work in spinal muscular atrophy, Dr. Kaspar has been working to bring more effective, one-time treatment options to families worldwide.

Women in STEM

Drs. High and Bennett are strong advocates for women in science, technology, engineering and math. Rising through their fields, they faced a great deal of obstacles simply because they are female.

“As an assistant professor, not only did I have challenging politics to deal with in my first job but I also had an atmosphere where many people around you had the attitude that you really had to prove yourself because you’re a woman,” Dr. Bennett explained.

They often encourage young people, especially girls, to do something they really believe in.

“There were also the times, as a mother of three small children, I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m just overwhelmed and don’t think I can do it.’ I thought to myself during times like that I’m going to seek out a less demanding job, give up this research career as soon as I figure out why it is that this line I’m working with doesn’t make the one clotting factor. As soon as I figure that out, I’m going to leave. Periodically I’d get discouraged. I’d have the same series of internal discussions. I’m definitely going to leave as soon as I get this done. … There was always one more hill to climb and the reason I couldn’t leave right then. … I cared way more about the work. I couldn’t leave it.”

Dr. High echoed that sentiment, adding that if you don’t believe in the work you’re doing, nobody else will.

“You will keep pushing on even through the bad times,” Dr. High said.

Stay tuned for the announcement of this year’s 2020 Sanford Lorraine Cross nominees in late September.

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Posted In Genetics, Lorraine Cross, Research