After overseeing the year-and-a-half-old alliance between Abbott Laboratories and Iconix Pharmaceuticals — his old and new employers, respectively — Don Halbert decided it was time to cross over to the biotech side of their collaboration. In early March, Halbert, who at Abbott was director of genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics in the global pharmaceutical research and development group, joined Iconix as executive vice president of research and development. “If I was going to make a leap into biotech, this was the right opportunity,” he says.
The reason it was right, he says, is because Iconix’s specialty maps quite readily onto Halbert’s area of expertise at Abbott, where he spent 13 years and helped build a substantial program in toxicogenomics. Iconix has built its reputation around creating a database of rat genome expression profiles associated with drug toxicity, and developing bioinformatics expertise in statistically validating which of these gene expression signatures are truly predictive of toxicity in humans. Now that he’s at the helm of Iconix’s research operation, Halbert plans to push the use of gene expression profiles in selecting candidate drug compounds at an earlier stage in the drug discovery process, and to continue developing Iconix’s ability to perform toxicogenomics in vitro — in rat hepatocytes, for example.
The move to Iconix isn’t the first time Halbert has ventured into the realm of biotech business. After earning a PhD in molecular biology at Washington University in the early ’80s and working as a postdoc at SUNY Stony Brook with microbiologist Thomas Shenk, Halbert found work with Becton Dickinson. Then, in 1986, he helped found Gene-Trak Systems, a startup trying to commercialize DNA probe-based diagnostics for infectious disease. Unfortunately, Gene-Trak’s technology was six or seven years too early, says Halbert, and when the company began to shrink he took off for a job at Abbott Labs.
Halbert believes Iconix’s technology may be relatively more marketable, and certainly has the potential to contribute to pharmacogenomics, an area of increasing interest in pharmaceutical circles. Although Halbert says the basic technical ingredients are present for extending Iconix’s rat-based technology to predicting drug response in humans, he adds that it won’t necessarily be a cinch. “It’s a big leap, and not an easy one,” he says. “There are lots of people pursuing pharmacogenomics as the basis for better directing clinical trials.”
— John S. MacNeil