We’re Making Elementary Mistakes in Drug Development Because the Industry is too Profitable.

Eric Lai

Eric Lai,  SVP, Head of Genomic Medicine, Takeda Pharmaceutical

When not devoting his time towards his passion of finding new restaurants to try out, Eric Lai is on a mission to make the world a better place. He’s been involved in personalised medicine right from the very beginning, and has figured out the flaw in the system. If you’ve ever had the pleasure to meet him in person, you’ll know he’s one of the nicest guys around, and the very definition of a straight talker. As always, Eric was unflinching as he gave his opinion on today’s drug development process. FLG: How did you get into science?

FLG: How did you get into science?

EL: Nobody usually asks me that question. I actually got into science because I thought I could do some good. It’s very much because of family history; I was born in Hong Kong and my parents ran a business making baby bottles and pacifiers and so forth. They wanted one of us to take over the business and I didn’t want to. I thought that if I kept going to school and applying myself to science, I could do something that is good for the general public and public health. This is something that I hold as my number one goal in life. I know a lot of people say that, but I wanted to do science because I wanted to escape doing something I didn’t want to do. It’s not flashy but it’s reality. I have changed careers many times; I started off as a chemist, so my Bachelor’s was in chemistry and with a minor in computer science. While chemistry is a good base for knowledge, it’s really the patient health and how to make use of the chemistry that is important. That is why I switched and did a PhD in pharmacology.

When I was in graduate school, way back in the 80’s, I realised that the future is in biologics – most of the cancer drugs are biologics now. This is when I switched to doing a molecular biology Postdoc at Caltech in Pasadena. I learned a lot and went through the academic route for 6 years, just like many people at the time. Going into industry, in those days, would be the dark side so to speak, so I went the standard expected route of Assistant Professor. After a few years I realised if you want to really do good science and big science in the genetics and genomics area, especially at the time with the beginning of the human genome project, you really need to have a critical group of people, as you can’t do it in small labs anymore. In 1995, GSK was building a genetic group of six people and I saw the opportunity. I am one of those folks that keep looking out for new stuff, however, I am very careful when jumping into things. I always have this 40-70 rule; you really should not make any serious considerations for anything unless you have least 40% of the information, and on the other hand, if you have too much information, you are too late. When you have 89-90% that means that most people already do it and you’re behind. I did the same thing and joined the dark side with GSK in 1995. It was a good experience. I was there for 13 years, I learned a lot, I switched responsibility during 13 years in order to advance knowledge and experience, and I was lucky enough to have a few good mentors during those days. Being put in charge of the Abacavir project in 2000 was a true learning experience. That was one of the earliest clinical examples of personalised medicine being used to save people. I was involved in that from the very beginning of the project in 1998.

FLG: What advice would you give to people starting out today?

EL: So I think that graduate schools are too focused only on science and not on how to make science successful. When I was in graduate school in training, 99% are still like that, where you are trained to be a good scientist but you are not trained on how to apply the science. We really need to think about how you make something commercially successful. I didn’t in this industry in personal science, and medicine, for almost 20 years and I have to stop this year and really try to understand why we’re not that successful in applying personalised medicine. We have plenty of examples of personalised medicine today; when I first started 20 years ago we had one or two examples and after the conferences all the speakers would get together and trade their examples because there were so few. Now you can talk for a whole day of examples of science and how personalised medicine will work. However, still very few are successful, good, commercial personalised medicine examples that actually make money. We need to realise and understand why this is the case. Most of the scientists that I talk to don’t understand how to translate a successful science project or finding into successful commercial
opportunity. We must also think about how to deal with people that are not in science: the businessmen, the lawyers, IP regulatory. None of those areas are even talked about. All of sudden you get into a world in which you are passionate about the science and you are good at the science but you can’t communicate to the rest of the people. Why is it important? Why it should go to the next level? I see a lot of really good scientists who have not been able to translate that because they lack those skills. Those are the two things that I think people should spend a lot of time on, in addition to the science. 

Read the full interview with Eric Lai in the latest issue of Front Line Genomics Magazine.