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A Head of His Time

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Twenty years ago, Charles Cantor grabbed genomics by the horns and wrestled it into the creature we know today

 

By Meredith W. Salisbury

 

When Celera came along and made a private-sector effort out of sequencing the genome, the concept took many in the industry aback. But it was old hat to Charles Cantor, who had already tried to commercialize the project — twice. Starting in the early ’80s when there was little interest in pursuing such a grand idea and again later when he felt the public project wasn’t moving fast enough, Cantor went out to corral the necessary money and experts for the task. “Both of those were simply too early,” he says of the failed efforts.

A shame, too. It was controversial enough when Craig Venter left TIGR to start Celera — but even that would likely have paled in comparison to a private-sector competitor launched by the very man who’d helped create the human genome project in the first place.

Now CSO of Sequenom, Cantor, 59, seemingly couldn’t be happier about the way things have turned out. He’s on leave from his positions as a Boston University professor of biomedical engineering and pharmacology and director of the school’s Center for Advanced Biotechnology, but he can’t imagine going back full-time to academia. “It’s just not as exciting,” he says. “It’s fun being an academic administrator when programs are growing and when lots of money is coming in and you can affect the future course of things. … [But] to have to fight for academic budgets, to do academic projects on an academic timescale, I just think I would be bored.” He returns to his university lab once a month to check in on his group, which he jokes is doing much better in his absence.

With more than 350 papers on record, 50-odd issued patents to his name, and 16 companies listing him as an advisor, the unassuming man with rapid-fire speech can afford to be picky about where he goes. It was nearly four years ago that Cantor finally agreed to the position at Sequenom after spending a year searching high and low for someone else to fill the spot. “I had been charged to try to find [a CSO], and I couldn’t find them anyone,” he recalls. Intrigued by the company’s technology and eager to leave behind a just-ended romantic relationship in Boston, Cantor finally picked up the reins and headed for California.

In his role, Cantor is part of the triumvirate of strategic management with CEO Toni Schuh and CFO Steve Zaniboni. He keeps an eye on scientific projects such as the company’s recently announced, German-built $6 million genotyping machine — but with so much traveling for meetings and various events to talk up Sequenom, “the joke in the company is that my title, CSO, really stands for chief sales officer,” he says.

Working the Crowd

Cantor could claim mover-and-shaker status in this industry some 20 years ago, and is probably best known as an early and vocal advocate of the human genome project. In on the very first DOE meeting about it, Cantor pushed the idea to the NIH and colleagues at the National Academy of Sciences. “What I saw was that people were spending a tremendous amount of money and effort chasing down genes,” he recalls. “I was convinced that the project could be done and that it would be very cost-effective in the long run to do it.”

It wasn’t always the most popular stance, but Cantor and other proponents would of course manage to sway detractors. And he would need these same persuasion skills as vice president of the Human Genome Organization in 1990. Walter Bodmer, then president of HUGO, says, “Our job was to persuade people that it was a worthwhile organization to join. At the time there was quite a lot of opposition.”

But having an audience never disagreed with Cantor. A musician and actor who enjoyed being in theatrical productions and was on TV several times, “I had enough experience early on that instead of being intimidated by being in front of a big crowd, I love it. It turns me on.” Working with HUGO taught him a lot about dealing with international organizations, too — knowledge he relies on in his position at Sequenom. For one thing, “I learned to be tremendously sensitive to language,” he says. Ex officio, he learned the hard way, means a member with no voting privileges in the US, but in the UK it refers to someone with voting rights. “[Now], I make people repeat back to me what they think they’ve heard.”

Lured by Genomics

Cantor spent most of his academic career at Columbia University, where he started out in chemistry before sliding over into the genetics department. He was particularly interested in studying the structure of eukaryotic chromosomes and “making restriction maps of whole bacterial genomes.”

It was this work that put him on the map, so to speak, for others in the field. Charles DeLisi, another advocate of the human genome project and current director of the graduate program in bioinformatics at Boston University, remembers Cantor’s work back then. “I was quite eager to get him involved [at the DOE]. He was doing large-scale mapping of Chromosome 21 at the time.” DeLisi and Cantor set up the first human genome center at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which Cantor headed up. When DeLisi moved to BU years later, he once again convinced Cantor to follow.

DeLisi believes one of Cantor’s strengths is his ability to find talent. “[He has] a great eye for talent — young people who have not yet established themselves but are destined to go far.”

In fact, Cantor’s observational skills are almost legendary among colleagues. Sequenom’s Schuh recalls his first meeting with him in Amsterdam, April of 1996 — when he got “an insight into how his brain works.” Cantor was trying to convince Schuh to come aboard at Sequenom, and Schuh had driven all night from Hamburg to see him. “I wanted to get a cup of coffee,” he remembers, and started looking around the park where they’d met for a map posted somewhere. Cantor stopped him and said, “See that lady with the high heels? She’s not here for a walk.” “We followed her,” Schuh says, “and two minutes later we were in a coffeehouse.”

An avid art collector, Cantor is also known for religiously running an hour every day. “He’s up at 6:30 every morning for his five-mile jog,” DeLisi says. “It doesn’t matter what time zone he’s in, I think he resets his clock that way.”

Not that he needs to do so. Still irked about missing a bus years ago on the Greek island of Paros when his watch died, Cantor always wears two multiple-time-zone watches when he travels. That also offsets one of the main characteristics of scientists, a group he lumps himself squarely into: “They’re never on time for anything,” he says, before hurrying off late to a meeting.

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