Topol and Reed on a More Collaborative Drug Pipeline

; John C. Reed, MD, PhD


March 28, 2013

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In This Article

Editor's Note:
In this segment of Medscape One-on-One, Eric J. Topol, MD, interviews John C. Reed, MD, PhD, about his long career at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, his accomplishments as a scientist, and his future as he prepares to lead Roche Pharma Research and Early Development (pRED) in Basel, Switzerland.


Eric J. Topol, MD: Hello. I'm Dr. Eric Topol, Editor-in-Chief of Medscape, and I'm really thrilled to have with me Dr. John Reed, one of the leading physician investigators in the country, who has been the CEO of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, California, for the past 11 years.

I've had the chance to be on your scientific advisory board, and we're friends. It's so wonderful to have a chance to interview you, and also to switch roles because you just interviewed me last year.

Looking Back: Entrepreneurism and Helping Patients

It's a really big time in your career. I know you're moving on from Sanford-Burnham to Roche, but first I'd like to hear about your first 20-plus years at an institute that you've really built up. What has that been like?

John C. Reed, MD, PhD: I was at Sanford-Burnham for 21 years, and I didn't originally come to the Institute to really build anything. I just came to do great science. La Jolla is such a great community for that and it has become one of the top 3 or so biotech clusters in the world. I wanted to translate discoveries out of the laboratory into the clinic, and it was very clear that to do that, you had to have a company somewhere between. I was very anxious to work with the biotech community, the venture capital community, to take the scientific discoveries I work on and get them on a trajectory towards product development for patients.

Within the first few years of coming here, like any other self-respecting scientist in San Diego, I started a biotech company and we were able to get several medicines in the clinic that regulate the process of programmed cell death, or apoptosis, which is what my own research has focused on. We got a drug up to phase 3 for liver protection for patients with chronic hepatitis C virus, and we also got some medicines for cancer that helped to kill cancer cells through phase 1 and into early phase 2, and then Pfizer bought us at that point.

That was my first entrée into entrepreneurism and trying to take discoveries that are funded by National Institutes of Health (NIH) research and move them on a path where they could help patients. And there really is no way to do that without a commercial sponsor.

Two Decades of Research: A Passion for Science

Dr. Topol: You've been one of the most cited researchers in the world on cell death, apoptosis, and certainly in cancer biology. So you stayed and you still have maintained a lab for these 21 years -- am I right?

Dr. Reed: That's right. It's been the only thing that's kept me sane, I think. I've led this institution, which has been a great honor and privilege, but keeping the laboratory was very important in a number of ways. My passion has always been close to the science, but it also made it a lot easier to lead in a nonprofit environment where our faculty doesn't have to do anything. They don't have to listen to anybody, and so the only way you move the organization and get people to cooperate and collaborate is to lead by example and by persuasion, not by edict -- by being one of the scientists, the person in there who had his sleeves rolled up, who was fighting for grants, who was publishing papers, and who is trying to garner the respect of his colleagues in that way. It made me a lot more credible and able to really bring the organization together much more easily than if I had been viewed as an administrator who sits behind his desk and is not really aware of the day-to-day realities of what it's like to run a lab.

Dr. Topol: How many scientists and how many principle investigators are at Sanford-Burnham?

Dr. Reed: About 90 so-called principal investigators or faculty, and about 1200 employees overall at 3 different sites.

Dr. Topol: What was it 21 years ago?

Dr. Reed: It was a pretty small place. It's kind of funny how I even found it. I was in Philadelphia at that time. It was a cold February night and my wife and I were saying, "When are we going to go somewhere warmer?" And then I found the Institute in the classified ads. I came out and just fell in love with the place and its entrepreneurial spirit, lack of bureaucracy, and ability to really just get good science done. It's a great environment that allows you to focus on science without distractions from the other things that sometimes get in the way at universities and big hospital systems.

It was a great environment; the science really thrived. Along the way, as often happens in science, if you excel as a scientist they sometimes start asking you to lead things. I was first asked to be a program director, and then a center director, and then a scientific director, and finally the president and CEO. It was just a great set of learning experiences and a great opportunity to take an organization, which was kind of small and a little bit of a mom-and-pop organization, and come up with a new research model and see where we could take it. I think we've been reasonably successful and it's been a great experience.

Dr. Topol: Out of the 90 senior scientists and faculty, how many are physician investigators?

Dr. Reed: I think about 15% or so have MD or MD/PhD degrees.

'The One Thing I'm Most Proud Of'

Dr. Topol: If you were to say, "This is the one thing I'm most proud of about my tenure at Sanford-Burnham," what might it be?

Dr. Reed: That's a tough question. There were so many different discoveries that came out of the laboratory over the years that helped to identify the basic machinery that regulates cell lifespan and programmed cell death. I was able to enjoy this status of "the highly cited scientist" because the field became so interesting back in its day. At one time it became the fastest growing area in biomedical research as people discovered this whole cell-death machinery and realized that it was important in virtually every disease we can think of.

Dr. Topol: You must know one of my residents when I was at University of California, San Francisco: Stanley Korsmeyer, MD.

Dr. Reed: Absolutely, yes.

Dr. Topol: He was very active in cell death and apoptosis before his untimely death.[1]

Dr. Reed: He was a great contributor to the field who passed away, unfortunately, from lung cancer and who was never a smoker. Yes, he and I were very friendly collaborators and competitors. In fact, with respect to the company that I started, at the time we were really pretty fierce competitors. But when there was this opportunity to bring all of our technology together and try to harness that know-how towards therapeutic gain, we came together as collaborators and joined forces under the same umbrella of this company. We helped to move the technology out of both of our laboratories, along with other people in the field, to push it to the clinic.


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