Hal Barron - Roche

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The chef with the secret R&D sauce

Name: Hal Barron
Title: CMO, head of global product development, Roche/Genentech

After the big Roche/Genentech tie-up in 2009, quite a few observers were left shaking their heads over the improbable marriage of West Coast creative cool and the no-nonsense Swiss business style.

Buttoned-down Basel would come out on top culturally, many fretted, worried that the loss of sangfroid at Genentech would crimp the breakthrough cancer research work that had distinguished the biotech giant.

That didn't happen, though. On the contrary. Genentech clearly not only emerged as the pre-eminent drug R&D operation at Roche ($RHHBY), but it's also continuing to do pioneering work in oncology, poised to see a big win this year with the long-awaited T-DM1 antibody-drug conjugate and pointing the entire field to a new generation of therapies that will offer new and ever-more-potent treatments.

Hal Barron would be the first to tell you that his story involves a cast of thousands. He joined Genentech as a clinical scientist in 1996. Now he's chief medical officer and head of global product development for the combined operation, supervising researchers in facilities around the globe. But he's also played a key role in shaping the Roche/Genentech success story, keeping the faith in a new approach to R&D that is fundamentally restructuring the scientific architecture of drug development, maintaining the West Coast style that made Genentech a fun place to work and continuing to recruit the best and the brightest in their fields to keep up the momentum.

"The only way any drugs are successful is when you understand the underlying biology you're treating. In cancer, the biology has really exploded," Barron tells FierceBiotech, with researchers now able to understand what's happening on the patient level. Understanding "the pathways which are causing the specific cancer in mind [and tailoring] the therapy to a patient's biology, dramatically enriches the opportunity."

The next step to dramatically improve outcomes for patients involves developing tests that can ID patients who are developing resistance to drugs and coming up with next-gen therapies that combine treatments in a way that provides more effective treatment. That work is already well under way at Genentech. And Roche's expertise at diagnostics--a field that CEO Severin Schwan has evangelized--fits like a glove onto the R&D side of Genentech's new therapeutics.

Cancer drug research has traditionally been a disaster zone in drug development, with one of the worst long-term rates of success in getting a drug from Phase I through late-stage tests. But as Genentech and Barron have helped blaze the path, the researchers following their lead have helped change the odds. Last year, 12 of the 39 new drugs approved by the FDA were for cancer, which helps underscore the influence that Genentech has had in setting the agenda and pointing to the promise of these new meds.

It's also helped raise the bar on clinical studies. This new approach, identifying the patients most likely to improve, produces more dramatic results in clinical studies, which require fewer patients (saving costs) and earn quicker reviews at regulatory agencies.

"Genentech is world-class, with the most talented scientists," Barron says. "There are more Hughes investigators here than just about anywhere."

"We give scientists discretionary time to be innovative, be creative," he adds. "We're science-focused and come to work every day because we want to make a difference for patients. Taking a science and turning it into amazing medicines makes our job fun. That's our special sauce, and Roche appreciated exactly that."

-- John Carroll (email | Twitter)