New R&D leaders were named yesterday at a pair of pharma giants that have struggled in recent years to translate pipeline drugs into Phase III successes that can win marketing approvals and reach patients.
Roche named John C. Reed, M.D., Ph.D., the CEO of the nonprofit Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, to head its pharma Research and Early Development (pRED) unit, based at the company’s Basel, Switzerland headquarters. Dr. Reed will also be added to an expanded corporate executive committee when he begins his new position April 2, reporting to CEO Severin Schwan.
Dr. Reed will succeed interim pRED head Mike Burgess, who took over the job after Jean-Jacques Garaud resigned, less than two years after taking the position. The company bluntly said in its statement that Burgess “has decided to leave Roche”—although to verbally soften the blow, the announcement includes comments from Schwan thanking Burgess “for his valuable contributions to Roche. Mike has been instrumental in refocusing the pRED organization during the past few months."
It’s fair to say pRED has needed refocusing, as Roche has struggled in recent years to make the most of its R&D effort. That explains why, nearly four years after its acquisition by the pharma giant, Genentech still retains its own Genentech Research and Early Development (gRED) unit with roughly as many people as the counterpart of its corporate parent. In its statement of Dr. Reed’s hiring, Roche noted that gRED “is not affected by this management change.”
While Genentech’s successes have outnumbered its setbacks since the acquisition, Roche labs on the other hand have experienced several high-profile and costly failures. In May, for example, Roche halted Phase III clinical trials of experimental heart drug dalcetrapib, one of several new medicines in development that are designed to raise levels of beneficial cholesterol. Some have speculated the dalcetrapib failure may have been behind Roche’s decision last year to begin shutting down its Nutley, NJ, research site, which was focused on early-stage research on drugs for cancer and inflammatory and viral diseases, and eliminating its 1,000 jobs.
Roche has said it needed the savings to fund a large number of experimental drugs through clinical testing, and that it was committed to other areas beyond cancer: "Roche will continue to allocate the biggest part of its R&D investment to oncology, given the sustained high level of unmet medical need. However, the company remains committed to investing in other disease areas,” the company said in a statement, citing inflammation, metabolism, neuroscience, and virology
Despite its recent failures—or maybe because of them—Roche told investors Sept. 5 it would maintain an internal annual R&D budget of more than 8 billion Swiss francs ($8.7 billion): "Despite the promising increase of late-stage projects, Roche intends to keep its R&D budget stable by implementing continued productivity improvements and rigorous portfolio prioritization," the company said in a statement.
Roche’s statement of Dr. Reed’s appointment noted both his academic and biobusiness resumes: “One of the world’s leading” researchers with a focus on cancer, neuroprotection, autoimmunity, and other diseases; author of authored several hundred medical research publications; among the most highly-cited scientists. Inventor listed on more than 100 patents; member of multiple scientific journal editorial boards; and founder or co-founder of a number of biotechnology companies. “With his broad scientific and medical background he is ideally positioned to drive Roche's strategy of translating a better understanding of disease mechanisms into promising therapeutics,” the company said.
At Sanford-Burnham, Dr. Reed will retain institutional ties by serving as an adjunct professor. He will be succeeded on an interim basis by Kristiina Vuori, N.D., Ph.D., the president of the research institute, and director of the research institute’s NIC-funded Designated Cancer Center. A cancer researcher who has focused on identifying the molecular mechanisms of adhesion-dependent survival and motility in normal cells, Dr. Vuori is also a board member of the Independent Citizens Oversight Commission, the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state’s stem-cell agency.