Saving People’s Lives: Why It’s Exciting To Go To Work Every Day

I have had the privilege of working in the healthcare industry since 1983, joining my first biotechnology startup company in 1985. Just like physics had many of its heady years in the early part of the 20th century, the last 30 years have been similarly exciting times in biology. And there is no end in sight as we continue to learn more about the molecular basis of disease and how the human body works.
The annual American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting has just ended. One Wall Street Journal article (available for a fee) reports:

Drugs that specifically target cancer cells will be the focus of the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual conference…
Targeted therapies are considered the next generation of cancer drugs. Unlike chemotherapy, targeted cancer drugs avoid killing healthy cells, by choking off blood supply or signals that cancer cells need to grow.
Investors are awaiting data on several targeted therapies and their effects on a range of cancers. Presenting research will be companies such as Novartis AG, ImClone Systems Inc., GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Genentech Inc., which is partly owned by Swiss Roche Holding AG.
The annual ASCO conference is closely watched by Wall Street because of the sheer volume of clinical data presented. “It is the most important cancer conference of the year for doctors, patients and investors as well,” said Le Anne Zhao, a Caris & Co. analyst…

The article then goes on to describe how various pharmaceutical companies would be reporting progress on their numerous clinical development efforts.
A second Wall Street Journal article (also available for a fee) tells the story of Genentech’s recent run of drug development successes, as presented at the ASCO meeting:

…the spotlight will be on Genentech Inc., which is rapidly emerging as a dominant force in modern cancer treatment.
…researchers are expected to present details of several ground-breaking studies involving Genentech’s new-style drugs, which precisely target the genetic weak points of tumors. Virtually alone among such similar targeted therapies, Genentech’s drugs have proven surprisingly effective against some of cancer’s biggest killers — lung, colon and breast tumors, which together account for more than 250,000 deaths a year in the U.S.
For instance, Avastin, a new-style medicine that fights tumors by cutting off their blood supply, will be shown to extend the lives of lung-cancer patients and to improve the outlook for women with breast cancer. An older targeted drug against breast cancer, Herceptin, can cut in half the risk of cancer recurrence following surgery for a subset of women with particularly aggressive tumors.
Those results follow a year of other Genentech successes. Last year, researchers found that Genentech’s drug Tarceva also improved the odds of survival for both lung — and pancreatic — cancer patients. And Avastin, which was approved last year for colon cancer, has piled up big sales numbers and proven effective at various stages of the disease as well.
Cancer drugs are notoriously hard to develop. Many seemingly promising drugs often fail outright when subjected to the most rigorous testing, and even among the new class of targeted therapies, disappointments vastly outnumber the rare successes. Over the past few years, however, Genentech’s cancer drugs have bucked that historical trend in an unprecedented winning streak.
“I don’t think anyone expected this,” says Christopher Raymond, an analyst with R.W. Baird & Co. “These guys can’t lose.”
Genentech’s drugs do not cure cancer, and as tested so far, rarely extend life by more than a few months on average. But cancer treatment, like football, is a game of inches, and cancer specialists generally welcome even incremental improvements over existing treatments. In addition, oncologists often point out that because new drugs are usually tested in the very sickest patients, many of them might be more effective at earlier stages of cancer….
Over the past two months, as news of the studies trickled out, its stock price has risen almost 70%. Measured by market capitalization, Genentech recently became the largest biotech in the world, edging out previous leader Amgen Inc. by a few billion dollars. It’s also now bigger than drug-industry stalwarts like Merck & Co. and Eli Lilly & Co.
Genentech’s success in this field is partly a matter of luck, since clinical trials of new cancer drugs remain an inexact science. But it also reflects the scientific rigor of the company’s testing program. Unlike some competitors, Genentech routinely designs drug trials to prove that its therapies extend the lives of patients, an exacting standard that is arduous and time-consuming, but which tends to convince even skeptics when the results are positive…

Having lived nearly 20 years in the Bay Area, I remember watching Genentech grow from a small, young company. They have always been known for doing great research and not letting external pressures – which they certainly experienced a number of years ago – result in taking their eye off the prize. And, with their history of excellence, many of their alumni have gone on to be leaders in other successful biotechnology companies.
This interview with the Genentech CEO conveys the essence of their corporate culture. Another article about the company is here.
This article will educate you if you want to learn more about how breakthroughs in the biological sciences are changing the nature of drug discovery and development.
New drug development takes many years, has a very high rate of failure, and is extraordinarily expensive as this article notes. You can read more about the drug development process here. It is important to remember these facts when people with narrow political agendas focus on only 1-2 issues that alone do not tell a complete story. Successful innovations from companies like Genentech happen because they have the freedom to innovate and the ability to be rewarded for success after achieving the innovation.
Good research has led to valuable medicines, which are saving people’s lives. It’s why many of us in the industry are excited to get up and go to work every morning…knowing that we, too, have an opportunity to change the world in a wonderfully positive way.

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