HBA Woman of the Year: Susan Desmond-Hellman - Pharmaceutical Executive


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.

Pharmaceutical Executive

Tomorrow's Vision, Today

Desmond-Hellmann is proud of the progress targeted therapies have made. People who might have suffered horribly during radiation or chemotherapy endure fewer side effects with therapies she has pioneered. But even as she and her colleagues lead the industry toward new indications for antiangiogenics and other drugs, Desmond-Hellmann is still not satisfied.

"There was an important moment in drug development for HIV/AIDS when people started to use viral load as a surrogate measure for good outcome in patients with HIV infection," she says. "A dream that I have had for a long time is that we would have in oncology an excellent surrogate marker—simple blood tests that could help us understand very quickly, not just if this is the right patient for this therapy, but is it working? That would be a huge thing for oncology, and really change the pace with which we could discover and develop new drugs."

Desmond-Hellmann still looks back to her husband's early experiences in the AIDS clinic. "What I thought was most inspiring was the pace with which new therapies were coming forward with HIV," she remembers. "What was once a death sentence was changed to a chronic disease. I found it both challenging to see him and his collegues deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but then inspiring the kinds of scientific breakthroughs that happened."

For Desmond-Hellmann, this provides a natural link to her vision for cancer. "From the time the HER2 gene was identified, to the adjuvant therapy was 20 years," she says. "We should challenge ourselves to say, 'What would the world look like if we could do that in 10 or 15 years?'"

To pick up the pace of development, Desmond-Hellmann wants her employees to keep taking risks. Richard Scheller, executive vice president of research, shares her view: "We've been so successful, and Sue has been so successful, over the last years, that one could imagine that you would pull back a little and become conservative for fear of failing," he says. "Sue says you go forward with the knowledge that not everything is going to work, but that you're never going to make huge strides forward without taking risk. For me, that meant not to be afraid to put forward molecules in the development portfolio that have totally new mechanisms of action that we don't know if they'll end up working in the clinic yet."

Second only to her focus on patients, Desmond-Hellmann is devoted to pure research. "I always tell drug developers who ask me for advice, if you love drug development, look at the research. All good that happens in drug development comes from great molecules. These are the researchers' babies, and they look to us to guide them through the trials. It all starts with research, and that's been the great gift at Genentech—having these scientifically-driven molecules and making them into drugs."

Desmond-Hellmann still keeps the focus on patients, even as she turns her attention increasingly to hiring, mentoring, and thinking about how to create the best work environment at Genentech. The company is growing quickly, not least because it has won a reputation as a wonderful workplace. For eight consecutive years Genentech has appeared on Fortune magazine's list of the best companies to work for—and in 2006, it took the number one slot. But Desmond-Hellmann will continue to push the next generation of leaders to remain true to the ideals that she helped establish.

"No one person at Genentech really does as much as Sue has done to ensure the culture is focused on doing what's best for patients," says Barron. "When someone has a singular focus like that, it's a call to action for the entire company. Once everybody in the culture adopts that focus, it becomes part of Genentech."

Hal Barron thinks Desmond-Hellmann's influence is broader than she knows.

"Go down ten levels below her and ask somebody why they are at Genentech, there's a good chance they will say, 'I'm here because I think I can make the biggest difference to patients.' They might not ascribe that to her, they might not necessarily even have ever met her, but I think that the entire workforce comes here and stays here because of that belief."


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Sarah S. Harrison
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Carrie S. Cox
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Myrtle Potter
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Tamar Howson
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Kathy Giusti
Former Executive Director, Searle;
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Maureen Regan
Regan Campbell Ward

Lynn Gaudioso
VP, Business Development, Consumer Health Care

Carol A. Webb
Ortho Biotech

Carolyn Koestenblatt
Former Vice President

Carolyn Glynn
Vice President, Public Policy and Communications
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Joan Keith
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Karen Katen
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