Global Head of Clinical Research and Exploratory Developmnet in CNS, Roche
Even in our crowd of underage overachievers, Luca Santarelli, MD, PhD, is a standout.
The Columbia University neuropsychiatric post-doc was only 35 in 2003 when he published a now-legendary study in Science shattering the received wisdom about how the billion-dollar class of Prozac-type antidepressants work (by sparking new neuronal cells rather than by bathing the brain in serotonin).Teaming up with fellow neurogenesis pioneers, including his mentor, Rene Hen, Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, and the Salk Institute's Fred Gage, Santarelli then launched the aptly named BrainCells Inc. (BCI) to mobilize—and monetize—the therapeutic promise of their cascade of CNS discoveries. "I quite enjoyed the process of putting together a business model and doing the road show to raise money," the Italian native recalls. Santarelli's next logical career step was to open his own lab, but even though he had his pick of ivory-tower offers—and took one—at the last minute his entrepreneurial spirit got the better of him.
So in 2005 the Italian native left academia for industry, signing on with Roche's Palo Alto Calif., R&D center, under then-chief Robert Stein. Three promotions and only four years later, the 40-year-old is now directing, from the Swiss drug giant's Basel headquarters, an extreme makeover in how Roche does brain science.
As head of Clinical Research and Exploration Development (CRED), Santarelli is once again putting together a model and doing road shows, pitching translational medicine plus small, smart clinical trials as a faster, cheaper way to make drugs for intractable diseases like Alzheimer's and schizophrenia. "Most innovation happens at the boundaries between different disciplines," Santarelli says, "and I'm sitting at the boundary between clinicians who work with a drug label and researchers who work with a wide array of targets."
This boundary, the industry's longtime Achilles' heel, Santarelli is recasting as "a translational cycle where knowledge from molecular understanding of the brain gets to the clinician who thinks about the possible application and feeds back the information to the discoverer."
Roche can now take a second screen to many dusty small-molecule compounds in its CNS library; so far two have already panned out into clinical development for Fragile X Syndrome (FXS), the most common known cause of autism, and Treatment-Resistant Depression (TDR), which includes as many as one third of all diagnoses.
Inspiring a team of 30 senior researchers and clinicians to make it new every day may be challenge enough for the present, but Santarelli's spirit seems too restless for a pharma lifer. Where would he like to be in 10 years? "Entrepreneurship is one possibility," he says. "But I'm also very interested in healthcare policy. I think that's a good thing to do in your 50s."