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Alumni Profile: The science of cancer and the importance of giving back

Posted by on Tuesday, July 18, 2023 in Alumni News, Alumni Profile, Summer 2023, Vanderbilt Community .

Photo by Bob Rives

Written by Danny Bonvissuto

As the Vice President of Oncology Biometrics, Oncology Research and Development at AstraZeneca, Renee Iacona, PhD, MPH, drives strategy and investment decisions and leads more than 550 statisticians and programmers across the fields of early and late oncology. Her team works to design, deliver and report clinical trials that lead to regulatory submissions for health authority approvals of new medicines and indications in oncology.

The path to this position, which Iacona describes as her “dream job,” began 30 years ago when she entered Vanderbilt University Graduate School through the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program (IGP) in Biological and Biomedical Sciences.

“When I entered the IGP I was truly undecided about what I wanted to focus on science-wise,” said Iacona, who is from the Nashville suburb of Hendersonville. “It allowed me to act as ‘undecided’ and explore my options through the lab rotation component where I finally landed in pathology studying breast cancer. I like to say that the IGP solidified my passion for working in oncology.”

In 1998, the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine began. Based on suggestions from her thesis committee, Iacona entered the program in dual fashion as the sole PhD candidate in a cohort of MDs seeking dual MD/MPH degrees. She finished the IGP program in 1998 and the MPH program in 1999.

Iacona worked for Vanderbilt University as a genetic analyst in the Human Genetics program for two years, covering fields including late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy and age-related macular degeneration. She loved the exposure but missed oncology.

“I wanted to see the work impact patients’ lives,” said Iacona, who joined AstraZeneca as a junior statistician in 2001. “Impacting cancer means life or death in many cases. The first drug I worked on literally allowed a woman who had many prior lung cancer therapies to be able to exercise again and dance at her daughter’s wedding. I was hooked from that moment on.”

Twenty-one of Iacona’s 23 years at AstraZeneca have been in oncology. At one point, when the company had little in the oncology pipeline, she accepted a job as a chief of staff in another branch of the company and learned how to run a department. When the oncology pipeline started to rebuild, she was back in it with new skills to run a larger group.

“I have stayed at AstraZeneca through famine and now feast in terms of the oncology pipeline,” she said. “I now enjoy driving strategy across various tumor types and delivering new medicines to patients that extend their lives and improve their patient experience. I also really enjoy developing and mentoring staff and future leaders in my department and across other oncology functions.”

Setting others up for success is a big part of Iacona’s personal and professional life. Not only does she provide philanthropic support for VUSM’s Office of Biomedical Research Education and Training, she has started five scholarships that reflect her gratitude to the University of Tennessee at Martin, where she did her undergraduate work, and the Alpha Delta Pi Foundation, which helped her develop essential leadership skills.