Thoughtleader: Deborah Dunsire, Millennium

Jul 01, 2006
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors

Deborah Dunsire, MD
In April, executives from Millennium Pharmaceuticals gathered in New York with the company's sales reps, investigators, and members of patient advocacy groups to ring the NASDAQ opening bell. They certainly had reason to celebrate. Sales of the company's multiple myeloma product Velcade (bortezomib), which it co-develops with Johnson & Johnson, had increased 19 percent during the first quarter of 2006, leading to an earnings report that exceeded analyst expectations. It also is marking its 10th year as a publicly traded company.

New leadership also has buoyed Millennium: CEO Deborah Dunsire is closing in on her one-year anniversary as the company continues to realize the gains from its cutting-edge technology. The goal now is to build on those milestones. Millennium is seeking approval for new indications for Velcade, and is hoping to launch a product for mantle-cell lymphoma next year.

Here, Dunsire discusses what's ahead for the company, its success through partnerships, and why Millennium believes it can lead the pack in targeted therapeutics.

Pharm Exec: How is serving as Millennium's CEO different than running the cancer group at Novartis?

The Holy Grail of the Future
Dunsire: Novartis is a very established company; it has many years of history, many years of growth. So while everything that happens there is important, it's part of a very big whole. There are 80,000 people around the world. When you come to a company like Millennium, there are just 1,200 people, and every day counts. You really do see the personal impact that every single person has at Millennium every day. And that's exciting to be a part of.

People talk about biotech becoming all grown up. You've certainly had great success this quarter. How is Millennium growing up?

[Company founder] Mark Levin was a true visionary, a man who really saw where a new technology could go, and what it might yield, in terms of the human genome leading to an understanding of disease.

But then the company evolved to realize that that's not a business model per se; you have to translate that vision into discovering drugs and bringing them to market.

With Velcade on the market, we have sales we have to project and targets we have to meet, and that's a very immediate thing. You have to manage a very immediate focus and balance it with a strategy for long-term growth, because we're not about only today, we're about doing this for a long time into the future.

Part of that was focusing our strategy last year, because we understand that we can't be all things to all people. We made the difficult decision that we would focus only on oncology, because that's what our projected revenue base will support. When we do something, we want to do it well; we don't want to do a lot of things poorly.

How do you think about the growing competition in the oncology space?

I think about it in a lot of different ways. What's probably most relevant to Millennium is that cancer is 100 diseases. And nobody fully understands exactly what all the pathways are that make a cell cancerous. If you look back at early chemotherapy treatments, the first ones really were a bit like dropping a bomb—just try and blow up everything and hope the normal cells recover faster than the tumor cells.

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