When he left school, Ian Harris wanted a career in brewing. He enrolled on a biochemistry degree with the intention of going on to study a master’s in brewing at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK. But after spending, as part of his first degree, a year in the pharmacutical industry developing in vitro disease models for dermatology and oncology at the old GlaxoSmithKline site in Greenford, brewing fell off his agenda. Harris now wanted a career translating science into therapies.
Following a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Leeds, UK, and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Harris became a group leader at Beiersdorf Skin Research Center in Hamburg, Germany. He joined Johnson & Johnson in 2000, becoming principal research scientist for its subsidiary, Janssen, in 2005. Today, as senior director and platform Leader for Janssen Cell Therapy, Harris leads a group responsible for manufacturing clinical supplies of cell products and determining mechanism of action.
Harris’s work at Janssen on the cell-based therapy CNTO 2476 has gained international renown. CNTO 2476 has the potential to be the first marketed allogeneic product to improve vision loss in individuals with dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD) with geographic atrophy, a condition for which there is currently no treatment. As one of the key inventors of the platform used for the development of the therapy, Harris was responsible for the preclinical pharmacology, mechanism of action studies, cell manufacturing process development, and product characterization.
Such work, of course, can’t be done alone. “You can achieve more through colleagues than you can on your own,” says Harris. He’s striven to create meaningful ways to engage his team in the work surrounding CNTO 2476, drawn from Janssen’s “start-up culture driven to create value according to milestones.” He entrusts ownership of projects to each of his team members, mentoring them on the tools needed to meet their goals. He has passed on the advice he has taken to heart during his career: “Start with the end in mind. Be efficient. Question everything. Do what you believe in. And if things are not working, it is up to you to fix it.” The result has been to unite his group with a shared vision: to embrace change and be open to inventive technologies and platforms.
Bringing a novel therapeutic platform into a mature company like J&J, which can be predisposed to standardized protocol and resources, can have its challenges. But Harris’s command of open, effective communication helped him secure the necessary investment and support from leadership. He helped to devise and execute a two-day summit for 130 J&J attendees, including the company’s chief biotechnology officer, chief medical officer, and worldwide chairman of pharmaceuticals, to foster team building while informing on all aspects of the product development, supply chain and marketing of CNTO 2476. The feedback from the event was overwhelmingly positive. His influence on the J&J manufacturing supply chain saw him win the Worldwide Supply Chain Collaboration Excellence Award in 2008.
Harris’s reach extends far beyond J&J. As an active member of the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine (ARM) Technology Committee and the Commercialization Committee of the International Society for Cellular Therapy (ISCT), Harris has an influence on the regulatory environment for cell-based therapeutics and regenerative medicine, participating in conversations with global health authorities about how products like CNTO 2476 can be evaluated and brought to market. His recent conference and meeting presentations have looked at approaches to the regulation of the importation of tissues and cells; as keynote speaker at the International Alliance for Biologics Standardization joint workshop he discussed viewpoints from the US industry regarding first-in-human and marketing authorization. In essence, says a colleague, “he’s assisting in the identification and establishment of a whole new class of therapies.”
Having proved himself capable of the career goal he set when he caught the pharma bug at university—that is, translating innovative science into meaningful therapies for patients— Harris is now aiming to broaden his skills and experiences “to enable a general manager role.” His Janssen colleague, Rob Willenbucher, has no doubt that Harris will gain further strength and recognition as a leader and pioneer in regenerative medicine. “Over the next decade I expect his efforts to lead to the further development, approval, and success of treatments like CNTO 2476,” he says. “He will truly have a hand in shaping the future of this industry.”
Brewing’s loss, it seems, has very much been cell therapy’s gain.
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