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Snapshot: Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellman

Susan Desmond-Hellmann, M.D., MPHSusan Desmond-Hellmann, M.D., MPH became the ninth chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco on Aug. 3, 2009. An oncologist and renowned biotechnology leader, Desmond-Hellmann also holds the Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Distinguished Professor appointment at UCSF. In her role as chancellor, she oversees all aspects of the university and medical center’s strategy and operations.

Prior to joining UCSF, Desmond-Hellmann spent 14 years at Genentech. From 2004-2009, she served as president of product development. In this role, she was responsible for Genentech’s pre- clinical and clinical development, process research and development, business development and product portfolio management. She also served as a member of Genentech’s executive committee, beginning in 1996. During her time at Genentech, several of the company’s therapeutics were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the company became the nation’s No. 1 producer of anti-cancer drug treatments.

Q: Industry and academia have traditionally operated at a different pace, with separate objectives. How have you addressed these challenges and what advice do you have for others who look to emulate your success?

A: The issue is more of having different goals, rather than a different pace, although quarterly earnings statements are definitely a driver that are foreign to most academics. We started by realizing that the old way of doing things – with pharmaceutical companies funding specific projects in a lab, then taking the results and never returning – doesn’t really work anymore. We need to start with an understanding of what academic researchers know and do well, which is advancing the core science on pathways and mechanisms of disease, and what industry partners know, which is how to take a discovery from a lab and turn it into a medicine. We’ve had a number of partnerships, such as our agreement between Sanofi and our Diabetes Center, in which we’ve transformed that old model into a true collaboration, with the research starting here, then moving into the industry labs, then coming back for validation, and fostering communications throughout the process. Other partners have vast libraries of compounds or antibodies that are invaluable in our research. By working together, we can create a synergy that improves the science and also makes it more applicable for translation.

Q: How do you measure success of these academic/corporate partnerships?

A: We have many types of industry partnerships on campus, ranging from clinical trials to collaborations on very basic research that help us understand the mechanisms of disease. Success is measured differently for each of those. But my ultimate goal, which is shared throughout the UCSF campus, is to apply the most advanced science to improve the lives of people throughout the world. So for us, the real measure of these industry partnerships is whether they enable us to move faster and more effectively to translate the best science into real improvements for patients. That takes time, but that’s the ultimate success.

Q: What considerations do you make before deciding to partner with a pharmaceutical company?

A: There are many considerations, starting with how well our research is aligned in a specific field, and how well our strengths complement each other’s. As a public institution, it’s also very important to us that we establish some critical details up front, such as our faculty’s right to publish all results from their research – good and bad – and where applicable, any intellectual property agreements. But, ultimately, we’re also looking for people who are aligned in our mission to translate great science into a real difference for patients worldwide.

Q: The Pfizer-UCSF partnership is unique in that it brought Pfizer labs to Mission Bay. How has the proximity helped advance key research?

A: Collaborations really are key to solving problems in science that we haven’t been able to solve, and it’s no secret that close proximity helps any relationship. Several industry neighbors have told us that being able to walk across the street, rather than calling someone from across country, is making a real difference in their collaborations with us. Pfizer’s Center for Therapeutic Innovation, specifically, already has enabled UCSF and Pfizer to launch several key research collaborations at Mission Bay. Those include a project studying a treatment for a blood clotting disorder known as thrombosis, a therapy for a common and often deadly form of liver disease, known as non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, and new therapies for the devastating condition of pulmonary fibrosis, which scars the lungs and impairs normal breathing.

Q: At a time when federal support for basic research through the NIH and NSF is declining, how might UCSF and academic institutes statewide continue to support groundbreaking research?

A: These are times when all of us are learning to be more creative. We’re doing our part by making sure we’re operating as efficiently as possible and supporting things like core research facilities on campus, so individual labs have access to top-of-the-line equipment, but can share that equipment with everyone else on campus. We have been fortunate to still maintain strong research funding from the National Institutes of Health, which surpassed $500 million this year, but we’re also looking at other innovative approaches. Those include industry collaborations, as well as programs like our Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research, which provides seed funding to support highly innovative basic science – the blue sky projects that take big risks but have huge potential. And we’re constantly finding ways to support entrepreneurs on campus, to help make that leap into translating advances in the lab into commercial products.

Q: At Genentech, you supervised some of the biggest successes in drug development history. Are there parallels to be made between your business experience and the challenges you face as a chancellor?

A: As at Genentech, at UCSF I oversee a team of exceptionally talented, motivated people. As chancellor, my goal is to provide all of our faculty, whether they are basic or clinical researchers, educators, or clinicians with the support they need to succeed in their work. This means understanding the challenges and obstacles they face and identifying ways to help them address them. It also means identifying, from my more distant perspective, broad opportunities that individual faculty members may not see to advance their work. Given my own background, I’m very interested in translational medicine, moving our research discoveries toward the clinic, and much of my effort focuses on facilitating this effort.

Q: If you could change policies at the state or federal level, what would your priorities be?

A: I’m very interested in ensuring that federal funding for research is sustained and at least keeps pace with inflation, in order to support our thriving research enterprise. Also, I would like to see the FDA continue to work on streamlining its approval process, which would help move drugs more quickly to market, while also making it more appealing for venture capital to continue to invest in this industry. I’d also like to see more collaboration between federal funding agencies, universities and regulatory agencies, and to see more investments in innovative science.

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