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FEATURE: HGS s Haseltine Gets Down and Dirty with Biology

ROCKVILLE, MD., Sept 19 - William Haseltine is a party pooper.  

While others have celebrated the near completion of a working draft of the human genome, Haseltine, chairman and CEO of Human Genome Sciences (Nasdaq: HGSI), dismisses the accomplishment as more conceptual than scientific. 

“The human genome, from my point of view,” said Haseltine, “is not useful for medicine.”

Haseltine, who is known for groundbreaking AIDS research at Harvard Medical School, does not shy away from taking bold stances or from implementing his ideas. Over the past 19 years, he has founded seven companies, each in a different area of medicine. Today, Haseltine is employing an anatomical approach to genomics to make gene-based drugs that he says will forever change the business of drug development.  

His ideas put him at odds with his former partner Craig Venter, the iconoclastic researcher who gained fame and fortune by spearheading the movement to ramp-up the sequencing of the human genome.  

While Haseltine and Venter partnered in 1992 – HGS received the exclusive license to develop practical applications from research generated by Venter’s Institute of Genomic Research – the two have since gone their separate ways.

Venter founded Celera Genomics (NYSE: CRA), a company he fondly refers to as the Bloomberg of genomics. With its position as an information-age, dot-com portal, the company makes money by selling annotated sequence data. 

Meanwhile, Haseltine, 55, insists that tools and service businesses will eventually burn themselves out. Instead, Haseltine, who was trained by James “Double Helix” Watson, has formed a pharmaceutical company. 

“It’s very, very simple,” Haseltine said in an interview with GenomeWeb. “If you’re selling tools or selling services, yes, you can have a business. Yes, it can be successful. No, it cannot have, over a long time, a high growth multiple. So, I would say 90 percent of the businesses that call themselves genomic—even more than that—are in a low, long-term growth sector.” 

And despite analyst predictions that genomics companies will need to enlist the marketing prowess and sales force of big pharmaceutical companies to bring products to the consumer, Haseltine is not satisfied with the paltry pittance royalties provide.  

Haseltine, a man known for socializing with larger-than-life personalities such as Mort Zuckerman and Princess Firyal of Jordan, has bigger plans than that.

“Our goal from the day I became involved, which is the day this company actually got its structure, was to become a global pharmaceutical company that manufactures and sells the products we discover,” he said. 

The only big pharma partnerships HGS is interested in, he said, are those in which profits are split right down the middle. 

“We’re in the pharmaceutical sector because that’s where the money is,” said Haseltine, an avid art collector who fancies monogrammed shirts.

So far HGS is one of only two companies with genomics-derived products in clinical trials. Amgen (Nasdaq: AMGN) is the other. 

HGS’s drugs include epithelial-cell promoter Repifermin, also known as Keratinocyte Growth Factor-2, and Mirostipen, or Myeloid Progenitor Inhibitory Factor (MPIF), a human protein that may reduce the toxic effect of anti-cancer treatments on blood-forming tissues in bone marrow.

Last week HGS took another major step toward making these protein drugs viable by acquiring Principia Pharmaceuticals. The $120 million stock transaction will give HGS access to a technology that allows notoriously unstable protein drugs to remain in the bloodstream for several days.

Haseltine’s approach runs counter to the belief shared by many in the industry that the age of personalized medicine is dawning.

Referring to the hype surrounding pharmacogenomics as “a limited form of mass hysteria,” Haseltine said he favors the traditional approach of one drug for one disease for all people. 

“First of all, nobody can afford to develop ten drugs for the same disease,” he said. The regulatory pathway for each is too complex, too long, and too costly.  

Secondly, “this concept, which is so prevalent in genomics, is deeply flawed and off-center and isn’t where genomics makes its contribution,” he said. “Humans, after all, are more similar than they are different.”

He cites currently available protein drugs as examples: Insulin or growth hormone from one individual’s gene can be used by anybody. “We are made from totally interchangeable parts,” he said.  

Haseltine views genes as simply a part of the human anatomy — much like the heart, lungs, or a single cell. HGS studies these genes as physiological components of biological pathways and seeks drugs that intervene or enhance these pathways. 

And although he uses sophisticated computer algorithms in developing these drugs, Haseltine challenges computer scientists who believe that bioinformatics will replace traditional biology. Bioinformatics can guide you in the right direction, but “because biology has happened by completely random natural selection, it is not a predictable system,” he said.

So, ultimately, you need to enter the wet world of experiments. “You have to get down and dirty with biology,” Haseltine said.

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