Beyond The Printed Page | May 21, 2018

More Questions About Regeneron's Approach To Blue-Sky Research

Source: Life Science Leader
Rob Wright author page

By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL

More Questions About Regeneron’s Approach To Blue-Sky Research
George Yancopoulos, M.D., Ph.D., president and chief scientific officer at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

When attending the 2018 Annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference (JPM) in San Francisco this past January, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals held one of my favorite breakout sessions. When Len Schleifer, M.D., Ph.D., Regeneron’s founder and CEO, walked into the Georgian room at the Westin St. Francis, he looked at me and said, “This is crazy,” giving me a fist bump as he made it to the stage to field questions for the Regeneron breakout session. He and his colleagues had just presented in the Colonial room across the hall and had to wade through a sea of people in line to attend the luncheon keynote address by Microsoft founder Bill Gates taking place down the hall. The breakout discussion was interesting, though it got even more so when the last question was asked regarding the “blue sky scenario” of the Regeneron Genetics Center (RGC). The question included the word “vision,” for Schleifer wore a knowing smile when stating, “Let’s hear from the visionary himself.” And with that he leaned back in his chair, punting the question over to his colleague George Yancopoulos, M.D., Ph.D., Regeneron’s president and chief scientific officer.

Yancopoulos provided an impassioned response rarely witnessed during JPM. His retort not only served as the inspiration for this blog, but drove my desire to interview the chief scientist for an upcoming feature in Life Science Leader magazine, which we were fortunate to get scheduled. During our conversation, I asked Yancopoulos what Schleifer’s smile was all about. And while there wasn’t enough room to share his response in our print edition, it seemed like a good addition for our exclusive and free-to-access Beyond The Printed Page online section of the magazine. But to read all that the chief scientist had to say, you’ll need a subscription. Please enjoy this latest Beyond The Printed Page Installment.

Why do you think when Len Schleifer was smiling when fielding the “blue-sky scenario” RGC question at JPM? Was it a bit of a brotherly jab at you for being the “visionary?”

There are lots of visionaries at Regeneron, including Len, though nobody’s more visionary than Roy Vagelos [Regeneron Pharmaceutical’s chairman of the board]. But here’s why I believe Len was smiling. For a long time, 30 years basically, Regeneron has been routinely criticized for doing blue-sky research. In fact, people questioning what we were doing actually used the term “blue sky” when disparaging us as a research boutique. “This is what happens when you put a bunch of scientists in charge of a company,” doubters would say. “They do all this interesting science and develop all this interesting technology, but where’s the beef? Where are the medicines coming out?” We, on the other hand, kept saying, “This is where drugs come from (i.e., fundamental science and fundamental technology), and if we do our jobs right by investing the time and money to build all these capabilities, then we will have an evergreen pipeline of drugs flowing out the back end.” With a solid foundation Regeneron won’t have to worry about buying or in-licensing something from the outside, as we are the company on the bleeding edge of science. We believe the technologies and science we are doing today will pay off in the next 10 to 20 years. Len was smiling because we’ve been around long enough and have seen what “blue sky” can lead to, and it’s been some of the most important medicines of our generation. No other company has been able to do what we have done since the most productive days of Genentech or Merck. You can’t find other companies that have repeatedly, in their own labs, gone from ideas and technologies to important medicines like Regeneron. We are working on a whole stream of things in our pipeline around muscle atrophy, new bispecifics for ways of attacking cancer cells, new ways of using immunotherapy, and new medicines for metabolic disorders and liver disease. All are coming from our own capabilities, our own labs, and our own technologies that people disparagingly referred to as blue-sky efforts so many years ago. But we have demonstrated that if done properly, blue-sky research does pay off.

How do you prevent Regeneron from going the way of other once-productive R&D innovation engines that today are much less relevant?

That is something I worry about; that size and success will do us in. I have four children, and I often tell them that they have a handicap when compared to me. I came from a poor immigrant family, and I knew that in order to survive and make it, I had to work 10 times harder than anybody next to me. My children are the beneficiaries of success, and they are going to have to figure out how to deal with that. I tell them, “The biggest enemy of future success is current success.” I think the secret, both for my children and Regeneron, is to not to get away from one’s roots, and that which made you successful. For me it was a drive and a thirst to use science to make a difference. That was my dream, and why I immediately became attracted to Len Schleifer. Because I believed that’s what he really wanted too. The people we attracted to join Regeneron were also like that, and we built an environment to make it a reality. We have to stay true to the notion of using science to make a difference. We have to continue to attract the best and the brightest people who are driven by the power of science. We have to continue to create a synergistic environment where people can do this together. We have to constantly challenge ourselves and stay passionate. This is why I think the metrics are consistent with the fact that we are still on track. Thirty years ago, we were doing “crazy mouse genetics” while people questioned the rationale. But we knew it was the bleeding edge of science. Today we are the world leader in human genetics, and people continue to question the rationale behind efforts like the Regeneron Genetics Center. But RGC is like a biopharma within a biopharma, and the young team that is running it is taking advantage of anything that we can teach and give them to do. They have the same hunger that made Regeneron successful, and we are helping to create a similar enabling environment. I really feel Regeneron is just coming into its prime. Those other companies that were once game changers but are now less relevant? That’s because when they entered their prime, many of the key people who helped build the place on fundamental science and technology were long gone. I believe Regeneron is a unique company in the history of the biopharma business, as it has an almost magical environment that none of us wants to leave. I think we are poised to do bigger, better, and more amazing things. We’re getting the resources and the technologies, we’re delivering, and we’re engaging a whole new set of partners to do it.