D

r. David Altshuler never thought he’d do anything but academic research and medicine with his life.

He subjected himself to a grueling eight-year MD/PhD program. And he went on to help found the Broad Institute, treated diabetes patients at Massachusetts General Hospital, and led several international genetics research projects.

Altshuler never got tired of the academic work. But in recent years, he also got a glimpse of how industry functions as a board member of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a Boston company focused on treating cancer, cystic fibrosis, and pain. He realized that at the Broad, he was publishing papers that might eventually help people; at Vertex, he could develop medicines that might provide a direct benefit.

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“I loved what I did. I never thought I’d do something else, but there’s something really fun about being part of a new journey,” he said. Altshuler left his position as deputy director of the Broad a year ago this week to become chief scientific officer at Vertex.

There are no industry-wide figures on how many scientists are leaving top-level academic positions to lead research units at drug companies, but anecdotal evidence suggests a recent surge.

Altshuler and other high-profile scientists said they made the jump because of a growing pharmaceutical demand for innovation, and because technological and scientific advances have made this a particularly good time to translate basic research into medicines.

Executives interviewed by STAT have fond memories of academia, but they said the switch energized their careers, enabling them to do top-quality science that more directly benefits patients.

Their creative mindset has also helped invigorate giant drug companies, which are often criticized for their lack of innovation. And although the industry’s corner offices are still largely filled by corporate lifers, most drug makers have a least one former academic near the top.

Spurring corporate innovation

Take Genentech, for example. The California biotech company counts Dr. Sandra Horning as its chief medical officer, with several other academic refugees in positions of scientific leadership. A lymphoma specialist who has authored more than 250 peer-reviewed journal articles, Horning worked at the Stanford University School of Medicine for more than a quarter-century before joining Genentech in 2009.

But perhaps no scientist embodies the academic ethos in industry better than Novartis’ Dr. Mark Fishman. In the 13 years that Fishman has led the company’s research operations as president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, the drug maker has risen to become the top-earning pharmaceutical company in the world. Under Fishman, Novartis has developed medicines for diabetes and multiple sclerosis, among other disease areas, and has become a leader in the burgeoning field of cancer immune therapy.

Dr. Mark Fishman
Dr. Mark Fishman (center), a renowned cardiologist, left Massachusetts General Hospital in 2002 to lead the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe

Fishman said he had no role models to look to when he decided to leave his job as chief of cardiology at Mass. General. But he’s made it a point to hire academics since, because their way of thinking spurs corporate innovation. Two years ago, for example, he recruited Ricardo Dolmetsch, a rising star in autism research at Stanford, to lead Novartis’ neuroscience efforts.

The company’s most recent academic poach will also be Fishman’s successor. Come March 2016, Dr. Jay Bradner, a physician-scientist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, will become Novartis’ new drug hunting chief.

“When you’re in academia, you have to develop critical thinking, and your ability to survive depends on your speaking and writing well and defending clearly what it is you want to do,” Fishman told STAT. “The entrepreneurial spirit and culture of survival in academia is quite relevant to getting things done [in business].”

Of course, Fishman, Altshuler, and others who made the leap into business, said they had a lot to learn, too. One of the biggest lessons: people in pharma are just as smart as those in academia, several said, and just as committed to the public good.

“However much you thought you knew about science and reductionist logic, you realize that that’s not enough to do drug discovery and drug development,” said Dr. Ira Mellman, a cancer immunologist who taught at Yale for two decades before moving to Genentech in 2007. “It’s a steep learning curve.”

Leaders in industry generally earn more that academics, though top executives said money wasn’t a motivator in their departure from academia because they were already well compensated.

Mellman said he was moved to make the transition after several close friends and colleagues were diagnosed with cancer. One day out of frustration, his wife asked accusingly why, as a cancer researcher, he couldn’t do more to help them. “She apologized for that, but nevertheless, she was right.”

For Mellman, his biggest adjustment also turned out to be the most rewarding. When he was younger, his ego drove him to be the leader and hero. Now, he said, he’s mature enough to appreciate the benefits that can come from collaboration. Although he certainly worked together with other scientists as an academic, drug development requires teamwork at a different scale, he said, with no one capable of being expert at everything from medicinal chemistry to marketing.

His field of cancer immune therapy is exploding right now, based on decades of basic science worked out in academic labs. But the action has shifted, he said. Most of what needs to be learned now — how to improve therapies — comes from patients. And only industry can afford clinical research. “I know from personal experience that trying to do this in an academic setting is worse than discouraging,” he said. “You just can’t do it.”

More than just discoveries

Like Mellman, Dr. Gary Nabel, the longtime vaccine chief at the National Institutes of Health and, for the past three years, chief scientific officer at Sanofi, said he’s been invigorated by his career move. At the NIH, he was able to pursue research he felt was important, but he’s learned that “to make these discoveries meaningful to people, it takes more than just the scientific discovery. It takes a real commitment to translating it from the bench to even beyond the bedside to the scaling and sustainability that it will have to help patients,” he said.

Now, Nabel has to worry about how to make his work both scientifically important and commercially viable. At Sanofi, “you have to earn your research budget,” he said. “Every dollar you put into research is a dollar that doesn’t go into a shareholder’s hands, and those shareholders want to know why it’s creating more value for them.”

Gary Nabel, CSO of Sanofi
Dr. Gary Nabel led the NIH Vaccine Research Center for 13 years before becoming Sanofi’s chief scientific officer in December 2012. Sanofi

The path from academia to industry is not always a one-way street, though. Dr. Gary Gilliland, president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, said he’s personally glad to be back in the ivory tower after four years as a senior vice president at Merck — the hardest job he ever had.

He left Harvard for Merck, he said, because the main work of his academic career, finding genetic defects in cancer cells, had become almost trivial scientifically with the advent of gene sequencing. He also wanted to work at the bigger scale of a drug company and, with “typical academic hubris,” he thought the company would make better drugs if he were there.

But once he became a Merck insider, he realized how challenging it is to bring a drug to market, and he was reminded of the important role played by preclinical investigations. Plus, he missed the sheer intellectual joy of discovery.

“I didn’t appreciate what a wonderful life being an academic is,” said Gilliland, an oncologist and cancer geneticist who had spent 25 years at Dana-Farber and Harvard Medical School. “You have a lot of freedom to operate. It’s very different when you’re working in a for-profit industry where you have tight deadlines.”

His education at Merck, he said, is helping him now at the Hutch, where he’s had to cope with flat federal grant spending, and hopes to steer intellectual property development to be most relevant to industry. “Going the full circle is incredibly useful.”

It’s hard, the executives interviewed said, to leave the labs they love, and they cautioned that not all pharmaceutical companies are a good fit for academics. Fishman initially declined the Novartis job for six months, and only agreed to make the move after he became convinced that he would have intellectual freedom and corporate clout. Altshuler said he chose Vertex because scientific innovation was a founding and core corporate value.

“The idea is very deeply rooted in the company to use science and innovation to not do the same thing a little bit better or faster, but … to understand underlying cause,” Altshuler said while perched on a desk at Vertex’s new headquarters overlooking Boston Harbor.

Altshuler now sees his time in industry as a logical extension of what brought him into medicine in the first place: helping patients. “That has not ever ceased to fire me up,” he said.

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