The Master’s in Biotechnology at Georgetown University equips graduates with the skills they need to succeed in academic research, further graduate degree programs, or the biotechnology industry.
Kinney Horn, an alumnus of the program, recently came to speak with current Georgetown MS Biotechnology students. He spoke about his career at Genentech since graduating from the program in 2002 and his non-traditional path to working in biopharma, transitioning from a career in healthcare investment banking.
Mr. Horn now serves as a Director of Oncology Business Development at Genentech, a multi-billion-dollar biotechnology corporation that became a subsidiary of Roche in 2009. He currently lives in San Francisco with his wife and twin boys.
Kinney was drawn to the biotech industry for all the right reasons. Like many of us, Mr. Horn has witnessed cancer disrupt the lives of those around him. It is difficult to watch loved ones endure chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery because these treatments, while necessary and often effective, can be equally if not more debilitating than the disease itself.
Chemotherapy uses toxins to kill rapidly-dividing cells, which is a characteristic of aggressive cancers. In doing so, healthy cells are also affected and their death results in crippling side-effects for patients. Radiation works by mutating the DNA of cancer cells using X-Rays, gamma rays, and other charged particles, also damaging normal cells, leading to side effects. Surgery is risky, expensive, and often limited to the location and type of cancer in question. The limitations and disadvantages of these treatments suggest that there must be a better way to treat cancer. Targeted therapies are in their third decade and were one the reason Kinney was drawn to a career in biotechnology. “Herceptin’s effect in certain types of HER2-positive breast cancer and its story was fantastic and it’s what started me on the path to a career in biotech and to Genentech.”
Targeted and immunotherapies may be that “better way” or a way to improve on the outcomes patients received from chemo, radiation and/or surgery.” The sequencing of the genome and the multiple decades of following the science have start to provide the medicines for the specific biology of the disease and in some cases, the individual needs for each patient’s treatment. No two cancers are the same, so in theory no two cancer treatments should be the same either. How cancer develops is an incredibly complicated process, so it follows that our treatment of cancer will also be complicated.
Cancer immunotherapy (also referred to as “immuno-oncology”) is innovative because it works by strengthening the body’s own natural defenses against cancer, instead of inadvertently weakening it. There are many complications associated with cancer immunotherapy, and the approach itself is still largely in its infantile state, but many are optimistic. Mr. Horn finds himself in a group of cautious optimists when it comes to the potential of immuno-oncology, because this year alone, there have already been many failed clinical trials testing different immune-oncology methods against a variety of cancers. There have also been a few notable successes. “Immunotherapy’s full potential may only be fully realized through continued investments in personalized medicine to match the biology of the cancer with the therapies to treat it.”
Genentech is regarded as a pioneer in its field, and is often referred to as the “first biotechnology company.” As the part of the world’s largest cancer company, with an affinity for innovation, Genentech is makes considerable investments in both research and partnering. Approximately 50% of Genentech’s pipeline and marketed products are derived from successful collaborations with companies and institutions from around the world. In his words, “Partnering is in our DNA.”
So, how does partnering in biotech actually work?
Kinney describes his career as “working to cure cancer through partnerships,” and explained the process behind finding and forming beneficial oncology-based partnerships for Genentech. Partnering executives come from variety of backgrounds but most have some formal scientific education or training. Most travel to meetings with scientists and innovators, attend scientific conferences, receive “too many emails,” and work with scientists and experts to quickly triage partnering proposals from academics and for profits companies.
To determine the potential value in partnership inquiries, Mr. Horn asks questions such as: does this new therapy X modulating target Y significantly outperform current methods? What is the underlying biomarker approach? What is the extent of its patent protection?
Genentech also produces its own early-phase drug targets through its robust research division, housed in 785,000-square foot complex devoted to research, the largest biotech research facility in the world. These industry scientists employ the exactly the same target-based hypothesis-driven research strategy: by defining their target, understanding the associated pathway, figuring out how to up or down regulate steps within that pathway, and determining how to turn that knowledge into a therapy.
The likelihood of a technology being acquired by Genentech is small, but when deals happen, they are significant. The partnering process is summarized by “want, find, get, & manage.”
At Genentech, the partnering group is a part of the Research and Early Development organization. “Each year, thousands of ideas, posters, and papers are seen by MS, PhD, and MD-holding Genentech employees, who scour ideas and literature the as part of their research to develop novel science and medicines. For external opportunities that can complement Genentech’s internal research, hundreds of prospects are further explored by phone calls, email, meetings, and site visitations. Only 10-20 deals a year reach the point of professional negotiation, and upon agreement, form a symbolic “marriage” between the companies. Once a deal is finalized, executives are tasked with keeping the acquisition strong and productive; if the deal is a “marriage,” these executives are the “marriage counselors.”
Both the potential and the challenges facing the life science industry are immense. Mr. Horn closed his lecture with words of encouragement: “[It is a] great time to go into biomedicine. The old ways of developing drugs fallen to following the science. Data, tools and technology have emerged to give our industry its best chance to help patients who are really sick, live longer and better lives. “
To many current MS Biotechnology students, working for a company like Genentech Inc. is their professional aspiration. Mr. Horn spoke highly of the company, noting its great benefits, creative and happy employees, and the healthy work-life balance Genentech offers.
The biopharma industry often finds itself on the defensive, having to justify its seemingly-overpriced medication to a hostile public. There is truth on both sides. A small percentage of pharma executives have made outlandish price hikes on life-saving medication, which reflects poorly on the entire industry and often does impede patients’ ability to receive the treatment they need. These occurrences are rare but damaging nonetheless. Genentech is committed to ensuring our medicines get to the people who need them, even if they can’t afford them. Over the past 20 years, Genentech has helped more than 1.4 million patients access the medicines they need. We have a team of Genentech employees dedicated to helping people having trouble accessing our medicines. In 2015 alone they helped more than 180,000 people access the Genentech medicines they needed.
At the end of his presentation, two things were clear. 1) Genentech seems like a great place to work, and 2) Mr. Horn has found an ideal profession that marries his knowledge of finance, biochemistry, with his desire to create real change in the lives of cancer patients.
I am left with the notion that although our industry sometimes faces justifiable scrutiny, most people within it are earnest in their intent and moral in their actions. Kinney Horn’s place at Genentech is the aspiration for many current Georgetown MS Biotechnology students, and the fact that he once sat in the same seats as we do now, is an encouraging sentiment.
Written by Elaine Shults, MS Biotechnology ‘17