David Schenkein, Cancer Doc Turned CEO, Aims to Build New Genentech

10/16/13Follow @benthefidler

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a reputation as one of the preeminent lymphoma specialists in the country. He ran clinical trials of exciting new treatments, got put on national committees, and eventually became the director of Tufts’ cancer center.

Schenkein saw himself as a physician/scientist, and enjoyed his work. Working on clinical trials, he met people in industry. He turned down a lot of offers to work in industry, but the long hours began to wear him down.

In 2000, he got a call from a “friend of a friend” who said Millennium was looking for someone to run a cancer clinical development group. Schenkein had never heard of it. Millennium had no drugs on the market, but it had just acquired a company called Leukosite.

Schenkein was lukewarm about it until he met two people: Julian Adams (now president of R&D at Infinity Pharmaceuticals) and Mark Levin (a partner with Third Rock Ventures). Adams had created Leukosite’s PS-341—also known as bortezomib—and while his pitch to Schenkein to develop that drug began to sway him, it was a meeting with Levin, then Millennium’s CEO, that changed Schenkein’s career path.

“Mark spent an hour and a half in his office late at night, covered all of his white walls telling me about personalized medicine and the genomics revolution—this is 2000,” he says. “Herceptin had been approved, and now we were sequencing the genome, and [Levin said] how all this information was going to revolutionize the way we practiced medicine.”

Schenkein added: “I walked out of that office, and I picked up the phone and I called my wife and said, ‘if they offer me this job, I’m taking it.’”

Six weeks later, Schenkein was out of academia, and at Millennium’s office on Sydney Street in Cambridge, heading up the development of what would become Velcade as the company’s vice president of clinical oncology. Schenkein built a team and designed the clinical trials for the drug, and came up roses. Bortezomib was approved in May 2003, went on to extend lives of thousands of multiple myeloma patients, and became a multi-billion dollar product.

The following year, however, Schenkein says Millennium started changing. It downsized research. Levin left, along with several others, and Schenkein got antsy. The bortezomib experience, though, had put him on the industry map in a big way. Genentech, at the time, was looking for someone to run the clinical development for all of its experimental cancer drugs. And despite the fact that Schenkein had one approval to his name, Genentech reached out to gauge his interest.

“[David] would admit himself [that job] was sort of a little above his pay grade,” Leschly says.

Schenkein jumped at the opportunity, even though it meant moving to the West Coast.

“Mark Levin always held Genentech as his gold star, even at Millennium—we want to be the next Genentech, he’d say it at every company meeting,” he says.

There was a lot to learn for Schenkein at Genentech. The company had four FDA-approved cancer drugs at the time, and 17 molecules in Phase 1, 2, and 3 that he was in charge of. Schenkein was responsible for those, and several hundred oncologists and doctors, as well as key go/no-go decisions on which molecules to invest in. Schenkein also says there were many Genentechers who were passed over for the job, so he had “a lot of people nipping at [his] heels.”

Barron could see that even though Schenkein wasn’t the most obvious candidate for the job, he had room to grow. “When I met David one could argue he wasn’t the most experienced candidate on the list. But when you meet a brilliant, hard working, extremely charismatic leader who cares deeply about making a difference for patients, you think, how can I convince this person to come work for Genentech? And when they agree, you say thank you!”

Schenkein giving a presentation while at Genentech

Schenkein giving a presentation while at Genentech

So Schenkein took a deep breath, and settled in. Genentech was trying to shake things up, so Schenkein tried to be as transparent as he could, and spent his first three months talking to every person in his group. The idea was to listen, find out what peoples’ concerns were, and then put the right people in the right places.

“At the time David was here, Genentech was going through a period of incredible growth and development of an extensive oncology pipeline, and we needed David to help bring promising medicines to patients,” Barron says.

Schenkein spent the next three-and-a-half years helping Genentech navigate through multiple approvals of new drugs, and new uses of existing drugs. Just as importantly, he got to spend significant time up close with top Genentech executives Art Levinson, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, and David Ebersman. He began amassing the key experience needed to … Next Page »

Ben Fidler is Xconomy's Deputy Biotechnology Editor. You can e-mail him at bfidler@xconomy.com Follow @benthefidler

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