By John Miller
ZURICH (Reuters) â€“ Pharmaceuticals giant Novartis is pinning its hopes on a 43-year-old Harvard cancer research star to help fill gaps in its immuno-oncology arsenal after â€œmissing the boatâ€ on some promising therapies.
James â€œJayâ€ Bradner, from Harvardâ€™s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, will head Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research starting on March 1. He will replace Mark Fishman, who is retiring after leading Novartis research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for 13 years.
Under Fishman, Novartis successfully broadened its drug pipeline as its scientists shifted their focus to understanding disease, rather than merely unleashing batteries of chemicals on a target in hopes of finding one that works. In â€œCART therapy,â€ it is a leader in supercharging T cells to find and kill cancer.
But the Basel-based company also failed to keep pace with Merck, Bristol-Myers and archrival Roche on â€œcheckpoint inhibitorsâ€ against slippery tumors that hide from the immune system, a market worth tens of billions.
â€œThey completely missed the boat,â€ said Michael Nawrath, a Zuercher Kantonalbank analyst. â€œJay Bradner may come from Dana-Farber, but his pedigree is that of somebody who knows how you take new scientific developments and commercialize them, and how you collaborate.â€
Bradner, on Dana-Farberâ€™s blood cancer staff, has helped launch several start-ups aiming to commercialize his labâ€™s discoveries, giving Novartis hope that it has landed a research boss who combines business acumen with the scientific skills to help it regain lost ground.
In U.S. research circles, Bradner has star status.
A â€œTED Talkâ€ he gave in Boston in 2011 where he made the case for more industry and academic collaboration to speed drug discovery has been viewed more than 466,000 times. In it, he champions his labâ€™s decision to share a formula for a promising molecule with dozens of others.
â€œA DARK ARTâ€
â€œWhat would a drug company do at this point? Well, they probably would keep this a secret,â€ Bradner told the audience. â€œWe did just the opposite. We gave the world the chemical identity of this molecule.â€
In a 2012 Atlantic Monthly article, he labeled drug discovery â€œa dark art performed behind closed doors with the shades pulledâ€.
Analysts said this contrarian approach could be just what is needed at Novartis, where Bradner will oversee 6,000 doctors, researchers and staff in the United States, Switzerland and Asia.
â€œIf heâ€™s controversial, questioning what â€˜Big Pharmaâ€™ does, then all the better,â€ said Fabian Wenner, a Kepler Cheuvreux analyst. â€œThat can only benefit Novartis going into the next decade where weâ€™re going to be looking at much more concentrated payer power and pricing pressures.â€
Chief Executive Joe Jimenez hinted in October that Bradnerâ€™s â€œopen-source approach,â€ borrowed from the software industry, was one reason he was hired.
â€œHeâ€™s very â€¦ agnostic as to where a technology rests, whether itâ€™s in academia or in another company or in our company,â€ Jimenez said. â€œSo you could see a much more open view of where weâ€™re going to source new technologies.â€
Fishman, a cardiologist paid about $8 million annually, has led Novartisâ€™s push into CART therapy, which extracts immune system T cells from patients, re-engineers them to spot and destroy cancer cells, and infuses them back.
Novartis aims for 2017 approval, initially for the deadly blood cancer lymphoblastic leukaemia.
Still, it lags rivals armed with PD-1 and PD-L1 checkpoint inhibitors to fight tumors that evade the bodyâ€™s natural defenses. Merckâ€™s Keytruda is on the market, as is Bristol-Myersâ€™ Opdivo, while Roche aims for approval in 2016. Pfizer and AstraZeneca are also pursuing compounds.
Novartis declined to make Bradner or Fishman available for this article.
(Editing by Estelle Shirbon)
- Pharmaceuticals Drug Trials
- Mark Fishman
- blood cancer
- Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
- cancer cells