Skip to Main Content

Dr. Jay Bradner, a decorated cancer researcher from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, turned heads last year when he accepted a top job at Novartis, one of the world’s largest drug makers. Academics jump to industry all the time, but Bradner made his name with a move pharma almost never makes: When he discovered a potentially cancer-fighting molecule, he just gave it away.

I sat down with Bradner Monday as he settled in as head of the Novartis Institutes of BioMedical Research (NIBR), a Kendall Square-headquartered operation that employs more than 6,000 scientists with a budget above $6 billion. Here are excerpts from our conversation:


Throughout your career, you’ve prioritized open science and sharing data. Can that approach to R&D exist within the context of industry?

The pharmaceutical industry surely has underutilized open science … and so I see this as a great race to benefit patients. How quickly can we identify this holy trinity of drug discovery: an active therapeutic substance, the target it interacts with, and the indication for which it was put on Earth? Open science dramatically accelerates the recognition of technology’s true path.

What are the barriers to implementing that in pharma?

Most of the barriers to open innovation are largely conceptual. But now, in this modern moment, pharmaceutical companies, truthfully, are much more interested in public-private partnerships, in open modes of discovery than ever before. I think this is an evident trend in the industry, and Novartis has a chance to be a real leader in it.

Scientists are obsessed with this difference between academia and industry, and I just don’t see it anymore. I think that the culture of science at the basal level, where it’s performed by investigators, is just this hope of being connected to a great idea and then seeing it through to completion. And in that way, the everyday experience of science at NIBR is just like it was at Dana-Farber.


I heard a story that, in your old lab, you had something akin to a coffee table that formerly housed explosives.

[Laughter] Yes, we did. You have extremely good intel. I can’t remember if somebody gave it to me or if I got it on eBay. But I had no coffee table in the laboratory, and so I believe somebody gave me a wooden crate that once held, like, missiles from a bazooka. And we liked it because, you know, it’s a war on cancer.

Did they let you bring that to Novartis?

I don’t know where it is now. It may be a little aggressive.