As Dr. Jim Pomonis of APS gets ready to step into the next stage of his career, he can look back with satisfaction on the drugs and valuable medical devices he’s helped bring to market — many of which have gone on to alleviate human pain and suffering.
Thanks partly to the forces of fortune and partly to deliberate choices, many of his scientific achievements through the years have focused on how to rid the body of pain.
“That (specialty) was not something I had always planned on doing, but I had good opportunities in front of me and I enjoyed it enough to keep doing it,” explains Pomonis, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Minnesota. “I’ve always been interested in how environmental factors influence how the brain controls behavior … how to use drugs to manipulate pain, and the role of opioids in how that control works.”
The senior director of pharmacology services has spent the past six years at APS in a role that involves developing its client base and overseeing its preclinical research reporting. In the next advancement of his already impressive career, he’ll move forward in January to replace the retiring Dr. Mark Smith as APS’ chief scientific officer.
A long life in labs
Pomonis grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, as part of a science-oriented family, which is partly why he chose psychology for his undergrad (B.S., St. Olaf).
“My father was a chemist, and I grew up around labs,” he remembers. “At one point I thought about medical school, but I realized that my interests and career goals were much more aligned with a research track. My overall mindset of how I approached questions, and my view of the world, is a pretty good fit with that.”
After a post-doctoral fellowship, Pomonis joined Purdue Pharma as a senior research investigator, supporting discovery programs for novel pain relief therapeutics (including treatments for bone cancer pain). Further career changes led to work as a senior research scientist for Algos Therapeutics, as director of clinical programs for Empi and as director of scientific affairs and liaisons for Algos Preclinical Services.
These roles lent him valuable experience in clinical research involving pain therapy — that is, until the company shut down in 2013. That’s when APS president Michael Conforti stepped up to buy all its assets and offer many of its scientists — including Pomonis — key roles at APS.
Counting up clients, rounding up research
These days, Pomonis is the primary contact for clients seeking preclinical research services of all kinds. That means he frequently conducts presentations, develops client-facing materials, pursues grants, handles phone queries, writes quotes and facilitates contracts. At the same time, he’s tasked with overseeing a team of 49 people in ensuring the scientific quality and accuracy of all APS research.
Challenging? At times.
“Any director faces some very unique challenges of leading and working in cross-functional teams.” he jokes. “Everything I work on is so segmented that I don’t get to sit and focus on something for an hour, let alone four hours or a couple days. This includes activities in the scientific, perational, and the business development activities of the company.”
Generating sales for research projects can also present unique problems. One is the difficulty in getting clients to think of APS and its wide breadth of services when the need for services is so intermittent.
“We’re really unable to drive our clients’ behaviors,” he explains. “You can’t make somebody do a study they don’t need to do … they may not have the budget left, or they’ve had their questions answered. You have to be extremely responsive and reactive and find ways to be proactive to clients to get them to try us for the first time. But, if we can bring a client in and provide them with the quality that they need and deliver that in the time-frame required, the odds are that they’ll be back. We do really well on repeat business.”
Another challenge (shared by many CROs) is overcoming the perception that APS is more focused on earning profits than serving as an important part of the scientific community.
“When you’re part of a private company, academics are going to view you as just out there for the buck, as a CRO that doesn’t do research and just does what (the company) tells you to do.” In fact, he notes, APS works with clients in myriad ways to help them bring their products to market and conducts a significant amount of its own research each year.
Hard work brings rewards
Industry hurdles aside, Pomonis notes that his career to date has been rewarding in many respects.
“Anybody in this industry enjoys the prospect of knowing they worked on a drug or device that’s been licensed and is being used to treat diseases,” he emphasizes. “It’s about getting something out to patients that actually works.”
He’s most proud, however, of the number of other scientists he’s been able to mentor.
“They’ve gone on to do a lot of different things … grad school, careers in science, a number have gone to medical or vet school, and nursing. In a paternalistic way, you’ve got a bunch of people with interests and a similar level of enthusiasm in the same things you’ve always liked … and any time you can watch them succeed and grow, it’s pretty fun.”
His 10-year forecast for the CRO industry? A reduction in animal testing as man-made testing protocols continue to advance.
“Some things need to be done in animals because we don’t understand how disease works,” he says. “But every year we’ll reduce the amount of in-vivo clinical research done.”