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Vertex hires Broad Institute cofounder as research chief

New research chief to lead drug development effort

Grazier Photography

Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., seeking to expand its portfolio of medicines, has hired a cofounder of the prestigious Broad Institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as its new research chief.

The biotech company notified employees Monday that it has named David Altshuler, 50, as executive vice president for global research and chief scientific officer.

Vertex, based on the South Boston Waterfront, is pioneering new treatments for cystic fibrosis and working on compounds to be deployed against cancers, multiple sclerosis, and neurogenerative diseases.

One of four founders of the Broad — the others are Eric S. Lander, Todd R. Golub, and Stuart L. Schreiber — Altshuler has been its deputy director and chief academic officer since 2009. The institute is a biomedical and genome research center in Cambridge.


He also is a professor of genetics and medicine at Harvard Medical School and an adjunct biology professor at MIT. Altshuler has been an attending physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. He will be giving up his academic posts to join Vertex.

Altshuler, who also has been a Vertex director, said he was making the jump because in his new position he will be able to help bring new drugs to patients.

“I’ve spent my career motivated by trying to turn basic scientific discovery into new medicines,” Altshuler said. “I can’t think of a better place to do that than at Vertex.”

Altshuler, whose own research has focused on processes underlying the risk of the most common form of diabetes, will oversee five Vertex research sites in the United States, Canada, and Europe, leading the company’s efforts to develop drugs to treat a range of diseases.

Vertex’s first commercial drug, Incivek, treated the hepatitis C virus. But the company stopped selling the once-popular medicine in August after new and better hepatitis C treatments virtually wiped out its sales.


Since then, it has focused primarily on drugs to treat cystic fibrosis, an inherited disease that blocks the passage of air to the lungs.

Kalydeco, the cystic fibrosis drug Vertex now sells, treats the condition in only 4 percent of the people suffering from the disease, or about 2,000 people. But the company has applied to US and European regulators for approval next year of a new two-drug combination that can treat nearly half of those suffering from the disease, a potentially huge advance.

Chief executive Jeffrey Leiden said Vertex researchers also are working to extend to new therapeutic areas their approach of tackling “serious and life-threatening diseases with a genetic component and few existing treatments.”

Altshuler will step down from the Vertex board and begin working as research director in January.

He replaces Peter Mueller, who left the company in October. This month, Pronutria Inc., a Cambridge startup developing pills to regulate temperature and other properties in cells, said it had hired Mueller as its president of research and development.

Robert Weisman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.