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Movers And Shakers

C&EN Talks With Michael Varney, The Chemist Heading Research At Genentech

The new research chief shares his views on maintaining a vibrant drug discovery culture

by Lisa M. Jarvis
March 30, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 13

Credit: Genentech
Mike Varney, head of research and early development at Genentech.
Credit: Genentech

In a changing of the guard, Genentech has appointed a chemist to run its research engine. As head of discovery and early development at the storied biotech firm, Michael D. Varney is tasked with keeping vibrant an R&D culture that generated pioneering cancer drugs such as Herceptin and Avastin.

Varney, a veteran of Agouron and Pfizer, came to Genentech in 2005 to build up the company’s small-molecule discovery capabilities. Although he jokingly refers to his arrival at Genentech as “Mike goes to biology school,” the seasoned scientist dismisses any worries about a chemist steering R&D at what is considered the first biotech firm. “I think of myself not as a chemist, not as a biologist, but as a drug discoverer.”

As Varney takes over for Richard Scheller, who ran research at Genentech, a Roche subsidiary, for nearly 15 years, he is keenly aware of how easily bureaucracy can dull a research organization’s edge. One of his reminders to staff is that “innovative environments take action; noninnovative environments analyze.”

“Obviously you need to analyze and design good experiments and evaluate good hypotheses,” he says. “But in the end, the sum of the conversation has to bias on the side of ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen. Let’s go run the experiment.’ ”

Varney and other Genentech leaders watch for signs that the research organization is beginning to analyze more than act. Varney is on the lookout for what he calls “processlike behavior,” which often crops up in organizations when project teams—and their budgets—expand. By setting up rules and procedures about how projects get done, organizations create barriers to good science.

One way to prevent processlike behavior, Varney argues, is to assign a single champion to lead a project team. Setting up such a company within a company creates a single point of accountability, he says, and keeps scientists from being slowed down by the larger organization.

Varney also takes a long view of drug discovery. At big firms, acquisitions and other disruptive events have become the norm, creating a distracting environment where promising long-term projects can get lost as companies look for quick fixes. His hope is to make Genentech scientists feel that management has their back, that it understands discovery doesn’t happen overnight. “This is a hard problem you’re trying to solve; we recognize that, and we’re going to give you the time to do it,” he explains.

Part of being research chief is knowing where to place the big bets. Genentech’s new drug pipeline is dominated by a few key areas of oncology, including the white-hot field of immuno-oncology. Although the drug industry is prone to lemminglike behavior, Varney sees immuno-oncology as the real deal. “Clearly, cancer immuno-oncology might be a hot area—a little bit frothy even—but I think the potential transformative nature of this is real,” he says.

Varney argues that immunotherapy could evolve in oncology like antivirals did in HIV/AIDS: The first drugs kept people from dying, the next wave turned the virus into a chronic disease, later drugs were less toxic, and the focus today is on convenience. “Cancer is going through those phases now, obviously one type at a time,” Varney says. “We see this as a big opportunity.”

Genentech’s competitors in immuno-oncology, notably Merck & Co. and Bristol-Myers Squibb, have already won drug approvals. But Varney is convinced his company’s R&D approach will distinguish it from the pack. The mantra at Genentech is to build a deep understanding of tumor biology and human immunology so researchers can first describe and then design the best molecule for a target. Drawing up that molecule requires not just a target but an understanding of how microscopic changes induce macroscopic effects and using those insights to develop biomarkers.

Beyond oncology, Varney is excited about the potential of Genentech’s neuroscience pipeline, which includes molecules for Alz­heimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis. “The neurodegeneration area is one we’ll see more from in the future,” he says.

Maintaining a vibrant research engine is as much about people as culture. Being a Bay Area company, Genentech has always had to compete for scientists. But now the heated biotech investment climate—some would call it a biotech bubble—has made that competition even fiercer. “The initial public offering window has been opened longer than anyone could have imagined,” Varney says. “Venture capital funds are swimming in money right now, and as you can imagine every single one of those companies would love to have a former Genentech employee on their roster.”

Varney’s pitch to scientists is that Genentech is a place to build a career. “I think that’s something that is very difficult to do in the small biotech world, where basically the object is to sell.”

And he wants scientists to feel like they can be successful at Genentech even if they stay in the lab. The company has bolstered its “scientific track” to keep researchers engaged and well compensated. “If you want to stay on that track and build your career as a scientist,” Varney says, “then you don’t have to suffer financially by not becoming a manager.”  



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