Naysayers may argue that genomics hasn’t had much impact on the way pharmaceutical companies do business, but Paul Herrling, head of corporate research for Novartis, begs to differ. “More than 50 percent of the targets that we’re working on are new ones that we’re fishing out of the genome,” he says. “The people who haven’t seen [changes from genomics] — they don’t have the sensory organs to see it.”
Herrling ought to know. A biologist who early on focused on neuroscience, he joined Sandoz in 1975 and has remained with the company ever since. When it merged with Ciba-Geigy to form Novartis, he was in charge of integrating the research divisions of each company and headed up the final unit. Throughout his time there, he’s kept his eye on new trends and ideas.
So in the mid-’90s when genomics was gaining attention, Herrling, now 57, helped make the critical decision not to pursue mapping. Knowing full well that it would become a project other groups would do, he pushed to get into gene function studies, establishing an early functional genomics group, led now by Dalia Cohen.
By 2000, he established the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation in La Jolla — to this day it remains a center focused on working with high-throughput technologies and integrating them with chemistry, biology, and engineering research. The center has paid off: late last year at Novartis’ R&D day in New York, Herrling presented compounds developed at the institute. He says the choice to locate in La Jolla was a strategic one, designed to take advantage of the biotech environment there — the institute has performed well, spinning off three companies so far and forming a close collaboration with the Scripps Research Institute.
Herrling’s latest challenge, in addition to overseeing the genomics institute and the basic science and training institute in Basel, has been establishing the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases in Singapore. Designed to enable drug discovery for diseases such as dengue and tuberculosis, which get little commercial attention but run rampant in developing countries, the Singapore center will grow to house some 75 scientists and 25 students — making Novartis “the biggest drug company in the world on these diseases,” Herrling says. Any therapeutics discovered will be made available at cost or for free, he adds. The center will be able to make use of the latest technologies for its research.
As for genomics, Herrling says people should wait till they judge. With a seven- to 10-year pharmaceutical cycle, he notes, results won’t be in for a while. “If you are a scientist and you look at the pipelines, you can see how revolutionary [it’s been].”
— Fingerprints by Meredith Salisbury