HBA Woman of the Year: Susan Desmond-Hellman

There are people who hope cancer, one day, will become a manageable disease. Then there are those who know it. Meet Susan Desmond-Hellmann.
Apr 01, 2006

Desmond-Hellmann knew she wanted to be a doctor. Young Susan plays the part, with sister Theresa and cousin Mary.
There's something barbaric about cancer treatment. Doctors cut patients open, slice pieces away, burn people with radiation, and pump them full of harsh chemicals. This modern healing ritual is the best we've come up with. And even for the patients who endure the treatment and survive the disease, they are still left to wonder, "Will it come back? Will I have to go through this again?"

It doesn't have to be that way, or so it seems to a growing number of visionaries. Prominent among them is Andrew von Eschenbach, MD, FDA's acting commissioner, who has been talking about a new era of cancer treatment for years. Back in 2001, when he was tapped to head the National Cancer Institute, he articulated a sweeping vision of how medical progress would transform cancer into a chronic disease—a manageable condition—and how new drugs would make the disease an affliction to be lived with, not to die from.

Desmond-Hellmann, always a top student, on graduation day.
Von Eschenbach's goal is to reach that point by 2015. That leaves a lot to accomplish in just nine years. Currently, more than six million patients die each year from cancer—some succumb slowly and painfully, while others are swept away with shocking speed. And although von Eschenbach is talking about treating cancer, not curing it, the oncology community on the whole isn't hopeful that his vision will become reality in the next decade.

But Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, head of product development at Genentech, is more optimistic than her peers about how cancer care can improve for patients—she even articulated this same vision years before von Eschenbach. "If you'd asked me ten years ago to predict how far we'd come by 2005, I may have underestimated," says Desmond-Hellmann. "While some people are uncomfortable calling cancer a chronic disease, I do appreciate the notion. Perhaps one day, a patient who's been diagnosed with cancer could feel like they do when they talk to their doctor about high blood pressure or diabetes, or other illnesses that are difficult, but treatable. Cancer won't feel or sound like a death sentence."

Certainly, Desmond-Hellman has played a pivotal role in hastening that day by bringing some of the most promising and innovative oncology drugs to market: Rituxan (rituximab), the first drug to use monoclonal antibodies, which works by attacking specific types of cancer cells; Herceptin (trastuzumab), which opened the doorway to personalized medicine by targeting the HER2 gene, which defined a specific subtype of breast cancer; and Avastin (bevacizumab), the first angiogenesis inhibitor to stop tumors by preventing the formation of new blood vessels.

In 2005, Genentech had total product sales of $5.5 billion. A substantial portion of that, thanks to Desmond-Hellman's contributions, came from oncology. But if you ask her, a woman who describes herself as a simple Catholic girl who spends weekends skiing and cycling with her husband, she'll say she's just trying to help cancer patients lead livable lives. This focus on patient benefit sets the tone for drug development at Genentech, which, in turn, is setting an industry-wide agenda for oncology therapeutics. (See "Following Science," Pharm Exec, October 2005.)

"As a physician who has been engaged in the care of human beings, not just rats or yeast or cells, her greatest contribution may be bringing the eyes of a true clinician to a major biotech company," says David Johnson, MD, who heads the cancer unit at Vanderbilt University and is a former president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). "She understands at a core level what disease is."

Upholding Standards
Susan Desmond-Hellmann is not a secret. The Wall Street Journal ranked her sixth of its "50 Women to Watch" in 2005, and Fortune magazine included her among the "50 Most Powerful Women" for the fourth time. Most recently, the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) bestowed another recognition on Desmond-Hellmann, naming her its 2006 "Woman of the Year."

"Sue has made an amazing impact in her corporate role at Genentech and, at the same time, remains dedicated to patient care, a critical combination in today's healthcare environment," says Debra Newton, president of HBA and the Newton Grey agency. "Her colleagues credit her with making the world a better place to live."

Even as Desmond-Hellmann's work advances a new model of cancer treatment, it also charts the rapid evolution of pharma companies and shows that what's good for patients can be good for business. Under her leadership, a new vision—and practice—of cancer as a chronic disease has begun to emerge.

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