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Drug CEO's Business Becomes Personal

As his staff raced to test a cancer medicine that might save his life, an executive negotiated a merger that could have halted the experiments.

June 01, 2005|Denise Gellene | Times Staff Writer

Michael Crockett rushed through the door at the Sunnyvale, Calif., laboratory of Scios Inc. toting an Igloo cooler. Packed inside, beneath a layer of ice, was a vial of human bone marrow.

The marrow was needed to test a tantalizing hypothesis: that Scios' experimental rheumatoid arthritis pill, SCIO-469, might also treat cancer. As Crockett, manager of the company's drug projects, delivered the bone marrow to Scios researchers in February 2003, he knew there was more at stake than product development.

His boss, Scios Chief Executive Richard B. Brewer, donated the marrow. Brewer had multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer that might be helped by the company's pill.

The theory at the firm was that the drug might prevent malignant cells from multiplying, maybe one day turning myeloma into a manageable illness, like diabetes.

But scientists had to work fast. The firm's board of directors was preparing to sell the unprofitable biotech to drug giant Johnson & Johnson. And there were no guarantees that the SCIO-469 cancer project would continue under new ownership. J&J saw enormous potential in SCIO-469 -- perhaps a billion dollars a year -- but as a pill for rheumatoid arthritis.

Brewer hoped to persuade his new bosses to also test the pill in cancer patients. Most of the drugs he had used to treat his cancer were old and harsh; one chemo drug had wiped out all feeling in his feet. He became ill and his hair fell out.

"I'm hoping [other patients] won't have to go through what I went through," Brewer said.

Those at Scios who had watched Brewer battle his illness believed they were on a mission.

"When someone you know and respect gets a disease, you get angry," said Scios' top scientist, George F. Schreiner. "We hated myeloma.... We wanted to tear it down, plow it under the ground and put enough salt in so it never comes back."

Brewer, now 54, became CEO of Scios in 1998. He began his career in biotech at Genentech Inc. where he had led the product team that launched human growth hormone, Genentech's first drug. He rapidly rose to head of sales and marketing, helping to transform Genentech into an industry giant, while becoming known as a hands-on executive willing to take risks.

A top priority at Scios -- from the Greek word scionoso meaning "to know" -- was developing a drug to neutralize p38, an enzyme believed to spur inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis patients. There were few effective drugs for the joint disease, which affected 1 million Americans, making it a lucrative market.

Using sophisticated computer programs, Scios researchers designed molecules that looked like they might block the activity of p38, and neutralize it. Guided by the computer models, chemists then mixed one compound after another in search of a usable drug.

As Scios scientists closed in on their goal, they began to hear the footsteps of big pharmaceutical firms working on similar pills. Every day there were rumors that a bigger competitor had leaped ahead. Then, just as suddenly, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co. and others had setbacks, leaving Scios in the lead.

By the end of 2000, Scios was ready to test its pill in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Meanwhile, Brewer faced his own struggle. The first sign of trouble came in May 2000, when Brewer felt a twinge in his back. At first, he thought he had strained a muscle when he loaded his dog, a 70-pound boxer, into the back of his SUV. But the pain worsened, so Brewer went to a doctor, who told him he had a compressed disk.

His condition didn't improve with rest. By spring 2001, Brewer could not stand upright and had to sleep in a chair to avoid intense pain.

Brewer kept up a grueling schedule, which was also taking its toll. The company was on the verge of receiving long-awaited federal approval of its first product -- an intravenous medicine for congestive heart failure patients -- and important meetings were scheduled with the Food and Drug Administration.

Brewer steadily lost weight and the pain got worse, despite visits to a chiropractor. Aspirin didn't help. Damage to his spine had shaved an inch off his 6-foot 4-inch height.

The scientists on Scios' executive team were alarmed by their boss' worsening condition. Chief Medical Officer Darlene Horton, a physician, feared she was watching Brewer die. She warned him that he might have cancer.

"This is not normal back pain," Horton recalled telling him. "You don't need massages, you don't need a chiropractor. You need an MRI -- now." But Brewer told her his bone scans, another sort of imaging test, showed no sign of disease.

Finally, at the recommendation of his doctor, Brewer had a surgeon inject plastic into his spine to cushion the damaged disk. During the procedure, the surgeon took a bone marrow biopsy.

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