David Onions was recently promoted from the role of chief scientific officer of Invitrogen unit BioReliance to chief medical officer of Invitrogen. The position is a new one at Invitrogen and a seemingly unusual role for someone at a firm focused on developing and selling molecular biology tools. This week, Onions spoke with BioCommerce Week about his new position and Invitrogen's strategy for more collaborative efforts in medical research that are closer to the patient.
Why does Invitrogen need a chief medical officer?
I think it's associated with the strategic realignment of the company to putting it nearer to the patient. We're not a pharmaceutical company. We're not developing drugs, but we are moving our services and products much more toward a patient-centric position.
Can you give us a better idea of what patient-centric means?
I think what we see Invitrogen being is very much the enabler for pharmaceutical and biotech companies to develop drugs in a more efficient way. Therefore, we have to get more closely involved with that process, understanding that process, and working with our clients to deliver that.
For instance, we have in our drug discovery group in Madison, a group doing some really cutting edge work on protein kinases, one of the druggable targets in cancer and other diseases. So, that group is expanding rapidly. The second phase is we are developing our ADME-Tox capacity, both at that facility and in Rockville in our biologic division.
Then we intend to follow that through with our diagnostics division. For instance, we'll be putting in place pharmacogenomic tools to help understand the response of those drugs or agents to the patient. So you can begin to see a kind of a concatenation of services that fit together that are very close to the patient, from drug discovery, to toxicology, to pharmacogenomics. We think increasingly that it won't be a question of just getting the toxicological profile of a drug in an animal model, we want to know from in vitro studies in cells what the pharmacogenomic response in an individual patient will be like, and then we can carry that through to clinical trial support to actually understand how that drug might work with a patient. Of course, not for all products, but for a number of products, we also have a manufacturing/testing capacity in our biologics division. So, we're beginning to focus these tools and services around that concept.
Do you work for any particular unit within Invitrogen or are you involved with all of them?
My role goes across Invitrogen, and I try and assist in fitting all of those elements together. My role is to help others focus toward this patient-centric view.
The firm has clearly stated its intentions to participate in the molecular diagnostics area, primarily as a partner to established diagnostic firms. Are there any plans for Invitrogen to get more involved on the therapeutic side beyond employment of your technologies in drug research labs?
We have no specific plans to produce therapeutics. That's not part of our brief. I can't discount that that might happen in the future, but that's certainly not in our proposals at the moment. On the other hand, we expect to be a very close, enabling partner for companies to do that. For instance, our biologics division is closely involved in the banking, production, and safety evaluation of … adult stem cell therapies that are already coming into play in Europe and the United States. We're very closely involved in that process. It's not just a question of doing something routine, but rather working with the regulators to ensure that those processes are going to be safe and effective.
Where are you based?
I'm based in Europe, but I spend an awful lot of time in the United States.
You mentioned the stem cell technologies. Of course, it is a political issue here in the US, but is it easier for you to be involved with that technology working in Europe? Are there opportunities available there for Invitrogen that might not be available here?
Yes, very much so. In fact, we do have a group working on adult stem cells within Invitrogen. But at the moment, we're very actively considering an off-shore site for some of our other development in human embryonic stem cells, partly because of some of the federal restrictions but more importantly because we see, to a certain extent, problems associated with the WARF [Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation] agreements. We see those as being somewhat inhibitory to the development of stem cell science in the United States, because the conditions of those are often onerous, and frankly, we can go to a country where WARF does not operate and conduct research much more effectively and quickly.
I was hoping perhaps you could give us some more information on Invitrogen's recent pact with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Does the alliance go beyond biomarker discovery?
I wasn't involved in setting [that alliance] up, but, yes. It's part of a wider range of interactions we have with Fred Hutchinson and with the Mayo Clinic where we are interested in using our tools to look at more cutting edge methodologies for diagnosis, with cancer being a particular focus. It fits in with our general strategy — where of course we bought Zymed and Caltag — these both bring a huge suite of antibody tools that are used in diagnostics.
But the Fred Hutchinson agreement is really based around our ProtoArray system, which is really cutting edge, where we've got proteins in native state on a chip. We really see that as being a critical element we can bring to that party.