Breakout biotech bosses

How Ted Love, Lynn Seely and Emily Leproust are, yes, changing the world.

By Erin Biba

Ted Love 
CEO, Global Blood Therapeutics

“We hope the cavalry has arrived.” That’s what Ted Love, the CEO of South San Francisco-Based Global Blood Therapeutics, says of his company’s upcoming Sickle Cell drug GBT440. And he would know—Love is used to being the cavalry. Over the course of his life he has come on board business after business and turned them into roaring successes. It’s a career path he never would have predicted as a kid growing up in the city of Huntsville, Alabama. But anyone who has met him and heard his enthusiasm for business and science would be forgiven for assuming he had planned this life all along.

“I was a good student in a big family,” says Love. But the world of a Southern city wasn’t exactly for him. “I thought the best way I could have a different life than the one I grew up with was to get a good education. I loved science and decided young I wanted to be a doctor.”  So Love left Alabama for the East Coast, enrolling at Yale School of Medicine. Though he wasn’t thinking big while he was there, his teachers suggested he consider a life in academia.

“My mentors said, ‘Hey, you’re someone who can have a big impact on the world by building cutting-edge science,’” he says. They could see that simply being a doctor wasn’t big enough for him—changing the world, however, was more up his alley. Instead, he got his MD and headed to Harvard Medical School to specialize in internal medicine.

But Love ended up proving his mentors right. At Harvard he started his own lab focused on cardiology and began seeing patients at the same time. He saw that blood clots were causing the large majority of strokes and heart attacks, but the drugs available to dissolve those clots before they did damage weren’t great. So he started conducting cutting-edge research on reengineering a better drug.

Across the country, in South San Francisco, one of the world’s first biotech giants, Genentech, happened to be taking on this exact task. But they had a big problem. “They did not have a cardiologist in the whole company,” says Love. And every time Love would publish and go to meetings to talk about the findings, he would run into Genentech scientists and see that their research was overlapping. It was all too obvious that Love was a natural fit to join the team.

So, in 1992, he came to Genentech and took over the role of developing their blood clot-dissolving drug, called Activase t-PA. That included running GUSTO, the largest clinical trial ever conducted by a drug development company. It covered 41,021 patients and proved that the drug reduced patient mortality by 14 percent and would save the lives of 1,700 people per year. 

“I got promoted. I became head of all drug development and regulatory affairs,” he says.

Love stayed with Genentech until 1998, when a fellow cardiologist with whom he trained approached him out of the blue and asked him to help start a new pharmaceutical company. They wanted him to take over their drug discovery team, since no one in the company knew the intricacies of how to get their drugs on the market. Little did Love know, this was the beginning of a pattern that would follow him for his entire career. Over the next decade and a half, Love would become the CEO of a series of businesses that were starting up or struggling while attempting to develop new drugs and get them out to the public. He came out of retirement twice for opportunities that were too good to pass up. And that includes his latest venture at Global Blood Therapeutics.

“I work incessantly and I’m consumed by my work,” he says. “And I think my wife feels, ‘You’ve made a good living for our family, now enjoy your life.’” But this latest venture at Global Blood reeled him right back in. “I remember going home and talking to my wife and saying, ‘This company has been begging me to be CEO for years. I’m an African American physician and I have a special concern about sickle cell. It’s a disease of African Americans.”

Sickle cell anemia is an inherited disorder of the red blood cells, which are responsible for carrying blood through the body. In patients with the disease, the red blood cells are malformed, sickle-shaped, and so they don’t move easily through the blood vessels like normal doughnut-shaped cells and can easily become blocked or stop the flow of blood entirely. While some other ethnic groups do get the disease, it affects predominantly African Americans—one in 13 is born with the genetic trait for it and one in 365 is born with the illness.

Sickle cell is known as an “orphan disease,” which means that fewer than 200,000 patients in the U.S. suffer from it. In the past, investors stayed away from them because the small market seemed to be unprofitable. Love says Global Blood Therapeutics is hoping their new drug will be like the cavalry finally arriving to help this community that’s long suffered. The drug is nearing the end of development in Stage 3 trials, and when it was tested in mice, he says, it looked like a cure. “I used to treat these patients and I would almost cry because their circumstance is so painful. And because they were poor and black they weren’t treated with the kind of dignity they should be treated with. We’re on the brink of helping them,” Love says. “They’ve got a terrible disease and we can stop it in its tracks.”

And that breakthrough was well worth coming out of retirement for—again.

Emily Leproust
CEO, Twist Bioscience

We are in the era of biology. That’s according to Emily Leproust, CEO of the synthetic DNA–building company Twist Bioscience. “The ’50s were about aerospace (satellites, planes), the ’70s about semiconductors, the ’80s about computers, the ’90s about software, and the ’00s about Internet,” she says. Today, “biology and specifically synthetic DNA will have a massive impact and create tremendous value.” In Leproust’s view, it has the power to change the world.

According to Leproust, who was born and raised in France before coming to the U.S. to earn her doctorate in DNA chemistry at the University of Houston, there is a whole series of ways she sees it being used to benefit humanity. For example, DNA from yeast or E. coli could one day replace the petrochemicals in oil typically used to make plastics or tires. Synthetic DNA is already playing a huge role in drug development, diagnostics and precision medical treatments. Additionally, “the third area of tremendous importance is food safety. With synthetic biology, there are ways to drastically improve food security by engineering crops or even the symbiotic bacteria in the soil to benefit all. This could play a role in the developing world as well as the United States, Europe and Asia.”

Before founding Twist Bioscience with Bill Banyai and Bill Peck in 2013, Leproust was at the laboratory instrument manufacturing company Agilent, where she worked on a line of products that lowered the cost of DNA sequencing and helped researchers better understand single-gene genetic diseases. Today, her company is building DNA that scientists can use to help usher in the future of changes that she believes it will one day create. “While we have a very exciting business model, and anyone I am around can tell you that I love to sell DNA, it’s the possibility of changing the world that really drives my passion.”

Dr. Lynn Seely 
President & CEO, Myovant Sciences Inc.

Myovant Sciences might be in the business of drug development, but their mission, according to President and CEO Lynn Seely, is female empowerment. “Women make up 50 percent of the population, yet there has been relatively little research and drug development for women over the years, with the notable exception of breast cancer. This is unacceptable,” she says. And she should know. Seely is a physician specializing in internal medicine and endocrinology. Before getting into the start-up world, she was Chief Resident at Yale–New Haven Hospital and then moved to the University of California, San Diego, where she treated patients while running a laboratory funded by the National Institutes of Health. “I learned firsthand how effective and safe medicines can transform diseases and save lives. I became interested in contributing to cutting-edge drug development and decided to leave academia for biopharma. The opportunity to contribute to new medicines that could improve the lives of thousands, if not millions, of patients motivated me to make the transition.”

After stints at a series of start-ups, including one as the Chief Medical Officer of Medivation, which was acquired by Pfizer in 2016, Seely is now at Myovant, where she’s helping the company focus on developing a drug called Relugolix. Currently in Phase 3 clinical trials, the drug will treat uterine fibroids and endometriosis—and it also happens to lower testosterone in men, which means it can also treat prostate cancer. Currently, she says, 350,000 women every year have hysterectomies as a result of fibroids and endometriosis—but Myovant thinks their drug will be able to prevent that by treating symptoms with a daily pill. It will be a medical alternative to an invasive surgical procedure.

“As an industry and as a society, we need to prioritize and invest in women’s health,” Seely says. “In addition to uterine fibroids and endometriosis, we are developing a medicine for infertility—and we plan to address additional diseases in the future. By bringing new medicines to women, we also hope to elevate the conversation around women’s health and to decrease stigma and social embarrassment around discussing and addressing these issues.”

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