Meet Eric Forssen, PharmD ’77, PhD ’81, a 35-year voluntary faculty member at USC Mann whose career research work at NexStar (later acquired by Gilead) and Allergan was vital to the development of a range of new therapeutics and drug-delivery systems.
In a few sentences, please describe your career trajectory, including your current work. What are you most proud of in your career so far?
While in high school, I developed an interest in chemistry and later decided to study this field at a local university (UCLA) on the west side. As an undergraduate, I studied organic chemistry and became interested in molecules with pharmacological activity. These compounds tended to be more complex and have many interesting physical properties as well, which led to my exploration of pharmaceutical chemistry as a potential career path. At the same time, l happened to meet Professor Norman Kharasch, with the USC School of Pharmacy. Learning of my interest in pharmaceutical chemistry, Professor Kharasch informed me about a combined PharmD – PhD program at USC. I took that path, which turned out to be somewhat longer than I had planned initially.
Early during my PharmD program, I became interested in the research at USC’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, where I met Professor Charlie Heidelberger, the director of basic research there who was noted for his work on developing the antineoplastic drug 5-fluorouracil. I also met Professor Zoltan Tökés with the medical school biochemistry faculty. Dr. Tökés was investigating liposomes as models of cell membranes as well as the potential for drug delivery. We thought of a project of formulating the anticancer drug doxorubicin with the objective of reducing its toxicity. Successful early studies encouraged us to apply for research support, and now, with a PharmD degree, I was able to secure postdoctoral support from the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). During my graduate studies, I met Professor John Baldeschwieler, who was doing liposome work at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), developing formulations that could concentrate on tumors.
Dr. Baldeschwieler formed the company Vestar (for “Vesicle Targeting”), which I later joined, based on his research. I successfully developed a formulation of an anticancer therapeutic that accumulated in tumor tissues. This went on to become approved in the U.S. and several countries for treatment of Kaposi’s sarcoma, associated with HIV/AIDS. During my days at Vestar, I contributed back to the pharmacy school as an adjunct faculty member, teaching in graduate and professional classes.
Vestar was eventually acquired by Gilead, and I moved on to Allergan (now part of AbbVie). At Allergan, I joined the drug delivery systems group, where we investigated numerous technologies for potential use in the delivery of a wide range of therapeutics, including Botox, oligonucleotides, proteins and small molecules. At the company, I continued my involvement with the pharmacy school through the Allergan-USC postdoctoral fellowship program. I was able to recruit and train recent graduates who had the opportunity to work on delivery systems in a pharmaceutical industrial environment. In particular, we brought microfluidics technology into Allergan and adapted it as a tool for small-scale preparation of candidate ophthalmic drug formulations that otherwise would have been impractical due to the limited amounts of material available.
Since I retired from Allergan in 2016, I have been a consultant for companies developing liposome-based therapeutics and delivery systems.
What originally attracted you to your field? Any particular moment(s) that made you stop and think, “This is the path I want to take?”
There were two special moments that I can well remember, both when I worked at Vestar. The first was when an oncologist at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) called us regarding our liposome drug for treating Kaposi’s. He wanted to thank us for this drug since it was very effective with mild side effects. He then disclosed that he was the patient and that our treatment had brought him great relief. The second was when I was invited to Moscow, Russia, in 1997 to make a presentation on our liposome drug. While there, I thought this might be part of a new beginning between our countries where we might benefit from one another medically and in other ways; sadly, it has not been so.
What advice do you have for students who may be interested in following a similar path to yours? Why do you think students should consider attending the USC Mann School?
My advice for students now studying the pharmaceutical sciences is to make connections with many others in the fields that you may have an interest in. Networking outside of your immediate field of interest and attending professional meetings are of great value. Take advantage of the local environment. Caltech is nearby; look up their schedule for seminars that may be of interest.
Be prepared for significant changes in the future by being flexible and adaptable. One of the best ways to do this is to gain fundamental skills that are broad-based and can be used in many applications. Consider the value of gaining critical skills that can be combined uniquely to meet important needs. For example, combining microfluidics with regulatory affairs and artificial intelligence to address personalized medicine. Courses in statistics, chemical engineering, artificial intelligence, cell biology and others should be considered.
What does the phrase “Trojan Family” mean to you?
Both of my parents grew up in the 1920s and 1930s in neighborhoods near the USC campus and knew USC well. They went to high schools nearby, my father to Fremont High School and my mother to Polytechnic High. My dad liked to visit the USC campus and study in the libraries there. He had dreamed of going to USC someday, but the Second World War impacted his plans. Later on, when he was an attorney at a major aerospace firm, he attended some continuing education at the USC Law School. I will always remember his enthusiasm for USC, and I have many of the same positive feelings.