Novartis hires Harvard star to plug gaps in cancer drug arsenal

Wed Dec 16, 2015 7:06am EST
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By John Miller

ZURICH Dec 16 (Reuters) - 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 "missing the boat" on some promising therapies.

James "Jay" Bradner, from Harvard'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 "CART therapy," 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 "checkpoint inhibitors" against slippery tumours that hide from the immune system, a market worth tens of billions.

"They completely missed the boat," said Michael Nawrath, a Zuercher Kantonalbank analyst. "Jay Bradner may come from Dana-Farber, but his pedigree is that of somebody who knows how you take new scientific developments and commercialise them, and how you collaborate."

Bradner, on Dana-Farber's blood cancer staff, has helped launch several start-ups aiming to commercialise his lab'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 "TED Talk" 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 lab's decision to share a formula for a promising molecule with dozens of others.   Continued...