William Marshall works at the cutting edge of both drug development and beer-making. As president of miRagen Therapeutics, he secured $41 million last month to advance a new type of drug based on microRNAs. And as co-owner of Twisted Pine Brewing, he encourages the craft brewery to experiment with new flavors, including chili wheat beers and a cucumber pale ale.
Marshall talked with STAT about each job and the overlap between them.
How are microRNAs, these small regulatory molecules, connected to disease?
In essentially all the disease states that have been looked at, there’s an imbalance of microRNAs. The challenge is to understand which of those imbalances are important.
No existing drugs can do what those based on microRNAs do?
I think they really are a fundamental shift in the way that we think about drug development.
You just started human trials last month for miRagen’s lead product, an antifibrosis drug. Is that scary?
It’s extraordinarily exciting and terrifying all at once. I can’t think of anything I want to do more than test the hypothesis and see if we can help some patients.
You also co-own a brewery. What’s that about?
I grew up in Wisconsin, with German heritage and ended up liking beer. A former colleague from Amgen was a very focused home brewer. He started Twisted Pine Brewery back in 1995. In 2003-2004, I got involved.
Do you see parallels between brewing beer and brewing biotech drugs?
[Beer-making] is the earliest form of biotechnology. The type of grain you use, the extent to which it’s been roasted, the yeast you use, the hops you use — all these things affect the flavor and create an essentially limitless number of products you can put out.
What kind of beer do you drink?
I’m a little bit biased. I like to drink our own products. I’m a big fan of hoppy beer. I tend to gravitate toward IPAs, and I very much love a good imperial porter, both of which we make outstanding versions.
And when you’re out of town?
Wherever I travel, I’m always looking for the local brewery.
Twisted Pine’s Billy’s Chilies beer is made of five different types of peppers. Do you like your beer that spicy?
It’s not my go-to beer, but it’s extraordinarily popular. It’s really interesting to see how different people’s tastes are. We do a lot of more small-batch varieties of beer with what we would call weird flavor profiles.