A better path to drug development
TabulaSynthase, the blog of Whitehead Institute, brings together ideas and perspectives from the Whitehead community and beyond.
David Meeker is one of the most respected leaders in the drug development industry. He’s recognized for his business acumen, his clear-sighted understanding of the political and economic issues facing the biotech and pharmaceutical industry, and his calm, personable demeanor. Recently, Meeker visited Whitehead Institute to participate in Whitehead Connects — a speaker series which brings noted leaders of business and science to interact with the Kendall Square community. In the Institute’s McGovern Auditorium, Meeker spoke to a standing-room-only audience about the challenges of making new, blockbuster drugs affordable to patients and payors while preserving drug makers’ financial incentives for innovation. (Click here to view the video of the talk.)
However, before that formal presentation, Meeker sat down with a group of Whitehead Institute postdoctoral researchers for a candid talk about his experiences in — and observations on — commercial drug development. Meeker first entered the industry in 1994, lured by the vision of Genzyme CEO Henry Termeer for developing treatments for rare genetic disorders. During a 23-year career at Genzyme, Meeker helped guide the company’s R&D programs and overall operations and ultimately became president and CEO after its merger with Sanofi. But his path into biotech was untraditional: He had been neither a PhD researcher nor a business executive, but instead a pulmonary medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic.
“I enjoyed practicing medicine, but felt that I could be having a broader impact,” Meeker recalled. “The transition to the very different world of commercial drug development was challenging, but also fascinating. I was just the third MD in an organization of two thousand employees, and when I asked exactly what I should be doing, they said, ‘Your job is to think.’ I interpreted that to mean ‘watch, learn, and ask questions’ — which I did.
“Over the years, I’ve come to believe that figuring out the right question to ask — or the right time to ask a simple question — is one of the most important things a leader can do,” he said. “Often simply asking ‘Why?’ prompted people with more knowledge than I possessed to ask the deeper questions that uncovered unrecognized problems or opportunities.”
Today, when he recruits researchers, he looks for “well-rounded athletes” — individuals capable of meeting an array of challenges — rather than for people with specific skill sets. “Drug development is a world where you get thrown into stuff and you have to just figure it out,” Meeker said. “My goal is to create a really rich environment, with incredibly smart, multi-talented people.”
In 2017, Meeker left Sanofi-Genzyme to lead a two-year old start-up, KSQ Therapeutics, Inc., which was co-founded by Whitehead Institute Member David Sabatini. KSQ uses proprietary CRISPR-based methods to identify druggable targets for treating cancer and immune system diseases. It is now developing an array of drug candidates and its first clinical trial — for a T-cell therapy for solid tumors — is expected to begin by early 2020.
"Big drug developers have not been very good at getting value for the resources they are investing. They engage in a lot of ‘wishful thinking,’ rather than pinpointing the few truly effective therapeutics and the patients for whom they will work,” Meeker observed. “Ultimately, you make money by making people better, period. And you do that by following the science.”
He closed on a note of optimism for young investigators contemplating careers in translational bioscience research: Venture capital funders continue to make significant investment in scientists who are pursuing truly new approaches and backing their ideas with hard evidence.
Communications and Public Affairs