Top Cancer Professor Leaves Academia for US Pharma

Zosia Chustecka

August 01, 2011

Aug 1, 2011 — "An opportunity for one more big challenge in my life," is how Jim Cassidy, MD, PhD, described his move from Scotland to the United States, and out of academia into the pharmaceutical industry.

The move will allow him to be involved in the development of new cancer drugs, "which is what I've done all my life, and what I have enjoyed doing the most," he told Medscape Medical News in an interview.

Dr. Jim Cassidy

To join Roche US, Dr. Cassidy leaves his position as professor of medical oncology at Glasgow University, where he was also head of the Department of Cancer Research and head of the division of cancer sciences and molecular pathology.

He is now head of translational medicine in the Oncology Discovery and Translational Area, within Pharma Research and Early Development.

"We are very fortunate to have Jim join," said Mike Burgess, MD, PhD, global head of the Oncology Oncology Discovery and Translational Area and head of large-molecule research in Pharma Research and Early Development at Roche.

"With his rich and deep experience in oncology research, he is the perfect fit," Dr. Burgess said in a statement. "He brings new energy and inspiration to our group, which will allow us to enhance our development of new more effective treatments for cancer."

Moving Across the Pond

Dr. Cassidy spent nearly all of his professional life in Scotland, having studied for both his MD and a doctorate in clinical pharmacology at the University of Glasgow, and having worked there as a senior lecturer in oncology. After stints at the University of Edinburgh and the Western Infirmary in Glasgow, Dr. Cassidy was the first professor of oncology at Aberdeen University, where he developed both an academic unit of clinical oncology and a laboratory-based cancer research group. He then moved back to the University of Glasgow, where he has been professor of oncology for 10 years.

Jeff Evans, MD, professor of translational cancer research and consultant medical oncologist, and former colleague at the University of Glasgow, told Medscape Medical News that "it has been a pleasure to work with Jim Cassidy over the past decade in Glasgow. He has made an enormous impact on cancer medicine and cancer research, both nationally and internationally, and he is a global key opinion leader in his field, especially in developing new treatment strategies for patients with colon cancer."

Dr. Cassidy reported that he is looking forward to living in America, and is moving with his wife and disabled 27-year-old son, who are both "super excited" at the prospect. "We've been over to New Jersey 4 times now, and we've been delighted by what we've seen," he said. "Fabulous houses ... and where we are going to be is fairly rural."

His other 4 children are older and are "doing their own thing," so they won't be coming. The youngest has just completed her first year at Aberdeen University medical school.

Will he miss Scotland? "Of course, and I'll miss the family, but I certainly won't miss the weather," he said.

Mutations Are Key

Dr. Cassidy is enthusiastic about the opportunity that working at Roche has presented him. "I'll be at the top level of drug development, moving products out of the laboratory into early clinical trials, phase 1 and 2 trials," he says. "We'll be deciding which compounds to move into trials, and which trials we might do, and why we design them."

"We'll also be looking at biomarkers to see if we can predict patient responses," he said, noting the big move toward personalized cancer treatment.

Genetic mutations will be absolutely key to how we develop drugs in the future," he emphasized. "This is now not a matter of a wish list, this is now imperative."

The way of the future lies in identifying genetic mutations and then targeting them with specific therapies, he explained. We need to conduct trials of a new drug in the patient population carrying that mutation (or other biomarker), rather than testing [new drugs] in all patients with a particular cancer.

There have been a number of large and expensive phase 3 clinical trials in cancer that have failed recently, and there has been "some anger and anxiety about this," he said. "Pharma is changing very rapidly on account of this," he noted.

"We are learning, and learning very quickly, that the paradigms we have used for developing drugs are faulty," and there is an evolving realization about the need for patient selection. But this is very recent, he emphasized — this has come about only within the last year or 18 months, after some very high-profile failures.

One example of this realization is the story of epidermal growth-factor receptor (EGFR) drugs, which have been shown to be important in both lung cancer and colorectal cancer — but in different ways. In nonsmall-cell lung cancer, patients found to have EGFR mutations are likely to respond to treatment with EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitors such as erlotinib (Tarceva) and gefitinib (Iressa). However, in colorectal cancer, identifying patients with KRAS mutations, which are on the same pathway, identifies patients who will not respond to treatment with EGFR antibody blockers such as cetuximab (Erbitux) and panitumumab (Vectibix).

The situation is quite different for the 2 cancers, and "we weren't expecting that," Dr. Cassidy said. "We thought that once we had worked it out in one cancer, it would work across the board, but actually it doesn't."

Finding KRAS mutations in colorectal cancer has clinical implications, but they are not the same implications as finding KRAS mutations in lung cancer, he explained. "The significance of the mutation is different between the diseases."

The whole picture is far more complex than anyone could have envisaged, he said. "Our approach so far has been quite naïve and superficial. We need to find out more about the science and apply that science to the drug development process."

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