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Millennium s Incoming CEO Talks About the Company s Evolving PGx Efforts

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Deborah Dunsire
Incoming President and CEO
Millennium Pharmaceuticals

Name: Deborah Dunsire

Position: Incoming President and CEO, Millennium Pharmaceuticals

Background: Head of North American Oncology Operations, Novartis, since 2000

Vice President of the Oncology Business Unit, Novartis, 1996 — 2000

Director of Portfolio Management and Novel Technologies in Oncology, Sandoz, 1994 — 1996

International Product Manager of Immunology/Dermatology, Sandoz, 1991 — 1994

Medical Expert in Clinical Research for oncology/hematology, endocrinology, neurology, dermatology, Sandoz, 1988 — 1989

Education: MD, the University of the Witwaters Medical School, South Africa.


On Aug. 1, Deborah Dunsire will become the new president and CEO of Millennium Pharmaceuticals. This week Pharmacogenomics Reporter spoke with Dunsire, who currently heads the North American oncology operations for Novartis, about her plans for Millennium.

Do you see much overlap between Millennium, which is heavily involved in pharmacogenomics, and your job in oncology operations for Novartis?

Currently, within Novartis oncology, I run the commercial operations for the oncology business, but we integrate very much across our development organization, our translational medicine, and our research organization. And something that's been kind-of the Holy Grail of cancer medicine is finding the genes that drive it and the medicine that can deal with those disorderly genes. So, that has been a focus of our attention, and bringing targeted therapies to market, as Novartis has with Gleevac, has been a great step forward for the concept of the value of pharmacogenomic-type work.

Where do you see Millennium going in pharmacogenomics?

I think Millennium has a really well-founded and very sophisticated effort in pharmacogenomics, biomarkers, and really trying to uncover how we figure out what the right medicine is for the right person at the right time. And so, I think that's going to continue into the future.

And one of the reasons I believe it is absolutely vital is, as well look at the burgeoning cost of healthcare, as the population demographic ages, we're going to have to know who should use these medicines, so that you get the most efficacy in the right person without exposing people who won't benefit from that medicine. And that's really what this science is about. And so, I think we'll carry on on that path.

Is there anything else that you think is particularly relevant from your position at Novartis?

Millennium has evolved itself over 12 years — it was envisioned by Mark Levin. It has evolved from looking at an understanding of how genes were associated with disease, all the way through to uncovering targets, finding pathways, adding chemistry.

I look at it as having taken each next step down the value chain of changing health outcomes in patients. And now it's a commercial entity, it has products on the market. So it has really the full value chain covered from that discovery research engine all the way through to the market.

But being a company with a marketed product, we need to focus on building that capability. Each capability has been successively built, and building the commercial capability is the next wave, and that's the experience that I really have had over the last eight years running the US and then later the North American business at Novartis oncology, and building it to be close to $2 billion, and growing it over 26 percent compound annual growth those eight years. So, I can really bring a lot of experience to bear there.

Additionally, I think that in this business — in oncology particularly — it's so important to integrate really — right from early on — commercial, development, and research together, so that we're all targeted on the unmet medical need at hand, and what the products are going to have to look like to best address that. And working in that way, integrating those three key capabilities is critical to bringing innovative medicines to market, and that, I think I can bring to Millennium also.

Are there any changes you think you'll make in the way that Millennium does things?

One of the reasons I joined Millennium is that it's a company with an incredible reputation within the industry. It has a reputation for innovation, for how it has approached scientific advancement. It's a company that is at its next phase of evolution, so we'll be building the commercial organization, and really working on that integration of R&D and commercial.

But I'm not looking at huge change. I think they've done many things right, and that's why I'm happy to be a part of this organization.

Millennium has expended considerable effort on pharmacogenomic work in rheumatoid arthritis and other areas — how are they progressing?

The three areas that the company currently focuses on are: oncology; inflammation, obviously, with rheumatoid arthritis; ulcerative colitis; multiple sclerosis; scleradoma — those are four areas where we have products being approached right now — and cardiovascular.

So we'll stay focused on those areas. We have compounds in the clinic and compounds in research behind that. But we can't do everything, and that's why we've chosen to focus there.

There's also tremendous synergy with the oncology platform, the inflammation platform, and there's spillover from cardiovascular into the field of atherosclerosis. So, I think that's going to keep us busy.

We've got four pillars [central to] the growth of the company. One is optimizing the assays we have on the market right now, which are Velcade in multiple myeloma, and Integrin in acute coronary syndrome. And then, while we do that, through developing further indications, we'll also be looking at how we can accelerate the pipeline and bring more of those products to market sooner. And then, how we look at our strategic alliances — we have some very good strategic alliances, for instance with [Johnson & Johnson], who are our partner outside the US for Velcade. And looking at bringing in other molecules — we do need to focus, there's not one company that can do everything. We'll have our in-house focus of discovery and development, but we'll also scan the environment for opportunities to bring in unique products. So we'll further look at that.

We're also going to look at how we become operationally extant across all the different functions of the company, so the dollars we are investing are being invested in the best way possible.

Will Millennium become involved in alliances with diagnostic companies to produce diagnostics to accompany drugs?

I think that as we look at the biomarkers, diagnostics are going to be vitally important, and I think that's going to be on a case-by-case basis because obviously it will be necessary to find a diagnostic that can work well in that particular indication.

We haven't got a clear plan [involving] one diagnostic partner. I think that's something that's still got to be fleshed out. But obviously, diagnostics are going to be essential if we're doing drugs that are targeted through biomarkers.

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