"Mad Scientist" With A Fat Budget
Peter Goodfellow, the outspoken geneticist who will become head of drug discovery for Glaxo SmithKline when its merger is finalized this summer, lists his interests in Who's Who as soccer, science, and sex. The last item is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the 48-year-old scientist's most important achievement to date: the discovery of the male sex-determination gene.
These days, Goodfellow is spending most of his time on science. One of the top executives at what is soon to be the world's biggest pharmaceutical house, Goodfellow views genomics, the study of genes and their function, as the route to revolutionizing the industry. By the end of this year, the sequencing of the entire human genetic makeup--otherwise known as the genome--will be complete. It's the biologist's equivalent of the Holy Grail, since it could dramatically improve the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of disease. "It's the most important discovery of the new millennium," says Goodfellow. Gene-based drugs also promise to cut bloated drug-development costs because genomic data will lead to better, safer drugs. And they will likely be developed faster.
`BIG LOSERS.' Goodfellow's bosses at Glaxo SmithKline are betting he's right. His $4 billion annual research budget is the biggest of any drugmaker. Indeed, Goodfellow's genomics program is crucial to the success of the Glaxo SmithKline merger. Over the next decade, companies will be in a race for survival to win patents for gene-derived drugs. "Companies that aren't investing in this area now will be the big losers by the end of the decade," says Lehman Brothers Inc. drug analyst Stewart Adkins.
Goodfellow never imagined he would be at the forefront of a biotech revolution. As a boy growing up in the countryside surrounding Cambridge, he wanted to play professional soccer for England. "The only problem is that I wasn't any good at it," he says with a sigh. He was considered a slow learner and was placed in remedial classes until one day an observant teacher noticed the 10-year-old Goodfellow amusing himself doing complex math equations. From then on, Goodfellow's academic career took a turn for the better. He went on to get a PhD at Oxford University before completing his post-doctoral work at Stanford University.
Today, he is one of the world's leading geneticists. He believes that genomics will dramatically change the way drugs are developed and prescribed. Currently, disease is diagnosed by symptoms. Goodfellow and others hope to use information gleaned from genomics to identify people who will definitely respond to a specific medicine. That could limit bad side effects, ineffective treatments, and costs.
DEEPLY COMMITTED. Goodfellow himself spent several years at biotechnology startups. While working as a professor of genetics at Cambridge University in 1992, he was recruited by a venture capitalist to help set up Sequana Therapeutics, a La Jolla (Calif.) company that develops gene-discovery technologies. In 1996, Goodfellow helped found Hexagen, a biotechnology company based in Cambridge, England. But he left within months after Hexagen's board refused to make him CEO because of his lack of managerial experience. Goodfellow accepted a job with SmithKline Beecham in 1996, hoping to gain that experience. Four years later, he's still there and has no intentions of leaving.
One reason is that the new Glaxo SmithKline is deeply committed to genomics. The new company will have 500 patent filings for genomics-based drugs, says James Culverwell, a pharmaceutical analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co. Independently, SmithKline will have genomic-based drugs, one for obesity and one for hypertension, in clinical testing this year. They will likely take at least five years to get to market. Although gemomics speeds up drug research, the approval period is still lengthy.
While genomics is stirring excitement among specialists, the efficacy of medicines derived from genomic information is still mostly untested. Only a handful of antibody and protein drugs such as Amgen's Epogen and Immunex are on the market. Goodfellow admits that a few of his colleagues think he's mad. "It's no more mad than talking about sequencing the human genome was 20 years ago," he says. Whether they like it or not, the fate of pharmaceutical companies is largely in the hands of mad scientists such as Goodfellow.