When Deborah Dunsire took over as chief executive officer at Millennium Pharmaceuticals in 2005, the Cambridge (Mass.) company had only one drug on the market—the blood-cancer treatment Velcade—and sales growth was slowing. Worse, the drug, an intravenous therapy used to treat multiple myeloma, was about to face competition from a pill made by Celgene. Dunsire boosted marketing and research and eventually got regulatory approval for broader use of Velcade. Over the next two years, sales of the drug jumped by 38 percent.
That performance drew plenty of attention in the industry. In 2008, Osaka-based Takeda Pharmaceutical acquired Millennium for $8.9 billion. Takeda's top seller, diabetes treatment Actos, will face generic competitors next year, and Takeda was attracted by Dunsire's success with Velcade. In her previous job at Novartis (NVS) she had overseen the launch of the blockbuster leukemia treatment Gleevec. "She is a great asset" says Takeda CEO Yasuchika Hasegawa. "She has a proven track record and great leadership ability."
Dunsire's experience guiding new formulas through the U.S. approval process and her blend of medical, marketing, and management skills are crucial to Takeda. It wants a foothold in the $52 billion global market for oncology drugs, which researcher IMS Health says grew by 8.8 percent in 2009, vs. 6.7 percent for the overall pharmaceutical market. Takeda, Asia's largest drugmaker, had 2010 revenues of $15.8 billion.
Today, Dunsire, an M.D. who worked as a physician in South Africa for three years, is steering research on 15 compounds in development, including some Takeda turned over to her to oversee. The formulas represent about a third of Takeda's experimental drugs. SGN-35, a Hodgkin's lymphoma treatment, and motesanib, for lung cancer, are in final clinical testing in the U.S. The company is also testing a prostate-cancer treatment, TAK-700. The drugs under development could bring in sales of as much as $850 million a year, says Devesh Singh, an analyst at MP Advisors in New York. Takeda says it expects to file for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of SGN-35 this spring.
Dunsire, 48, is also continuing to push for new uses of Velcade. When she became Millennium's CEO, Velcade was approved in the U.S. only as a second-line treatment (for patients who have already taken other drugs) of multiple myeloma, which is often fatal. Since then the drug has gotten the green light as a first-line therapy for that disease as well as second-line use against a cancer of the lymph nodes. Millennium continues to test Velcade for more uses and is working to produce it in a form that can be given with an injection, which should reduce side effects. "Velcade has been on the market for eight years, and we're still discovering what it can do," says Dunsire. The drug generated revenue of $498 million in fiscal 2010, up from $192 million when Dunsire took charge. Takeda expects sales of Velcade, marketed in partnership with Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), to grow 15 percent in fiscal 2011 and double digits again next year.
Dunsire and her team are benefiting from advances in genetics. Researchers can now create compounds that target genetic mutations in cancers, which help identify patients that will respond to a particular drug. "It's not one-size-fits-all treatment anymore," she says. "The more we understand cancer's biology, the more we can offer a constellation of drugs that address each person's particular illness."
Dunsire is one of just a handful of women heading biotech companies. When she was a child in Johannesburg, "things like that seemed out of my reach," she says. Neither her father, a carpenter, nor her mother, an office administrator, finished high school. From Lochgelly, a mining town in Scotland, the couple emigrated to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), where Dunsire was born, and then to South Africa. "Nobody ever moved from that town, but they did. They taught me to be curious and open to unexpected paths," she says.
After studying medicine at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and opening her own practice in that city, Dunsire answered an ad for a research job at Sandoz. One of the perks: a used Honda Civic. "I figured I could learn something completely new that I might be able to use later—and I got a car," she says. Though she missed working with patients, Dunsire says she quickly decided she could potentially save many more lives working in the pharmaceutical industry.
At Sandoz, Dunsire worked first in the medical-transplant unit and then trained the sales force. "We can bring forward new medicines that have real benefits, but if doctors don't know about them or how to use them ... the patient isn't served," she says. Dunsire moved to Sandoz headquarters in Switzerland, and after the company merged with Ciba-Geigy to create Novartis in 1996, she helped persuade top executives to invest in cancer drugs.
Four years later she was tapped to lead Novartis's fledgling North American oncology business. Dunsire oversaw many launches, including Gleevec, Femara for breast cancer, and Zometa for metastatic bone diseases. The unit grew into one of Novartis's most profitable businesses and altered cancer treatment for millions of patients. Gleevec, which had sales of $4.3 billion last year, has turned once-lethal chronic myeloid leukemia into a manageable disease for many patients.
When Millennium came calling six years ago, Dunsire jumped at the chance to lead an entire company. "At Novartis I was maybe a lead violinist, but not having the overall vision a conductor has," she says. The acquisition by Takeda gives Millennium a global footprint, Dunsire says. She sits on an executive committee at Takeda that reviews possible acquisitions in the oncology field and travels to Japan six to eight times a year. Her passion, though, remains the lab. "I often hang out around [researchers'] cubicles just to see what's exciting and so I know what people are working on," she says. "They used to jump up when I showed up, but now they're used to me."
Dunsire says she doesn't necessarily want to run a bigger company. Before she joined Millennium, Novartis offered her management opportunities that she didn't find as interesting as heading a smaller company where she could be connected to research and to employees at every level. "I'm fulfilling my mission to work on illnesses we don't yet have adequate solutions for and to find cures," she says. "With cancer, I think we're at the beginning of the end of finding cures."
The bottom line: Dunsire's track record in developing and marketing cancer drugs has made her a leading force in the pharmaceutical industry.