About 10 years ago, Dr. James E. "Jay" Bradner and his team of researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute discovered that a molecular compound they were investigating showed potential to treat a type of blood cancer. The finding was promising enough for Bradner to contact the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, the research arm of pharmaceutical giant Novartis SA.
"Even with this cold call," Bradner recalled, "Novartis was immediately receptive and invited me over to give a presentation."
So began a decadelong collaboration between Bradner and Novartis Institutes in a field called gene regulation, a technique scientists would use to turn the discovery of Bradner's lab into a cancer-fighting drug. It was capped off in February by the US Food and Drug Administration's approval of a new therapy, which Novartis named Farydak, to treat tens of thousands of Americans with the blood disease called multiple myeloma.
But the partnership is far from over. In March, the 43-year-old Bradner — a physician, scientist, and entrepreneur who performs dozens of stem cell transplants a year in his practice, teaches at Harvard Medical School, and has spun five companies out of his lab — will move across the river from Boston's Longwood Medical Area to become the second president of the 13-year-old Novartis Institutes.
Bradner will take over an organization that has grown from an outpost to the Swiss drug company's global research headquarters and become an anchor of the biotech cluster that has made Massachusetts a destination for the world's pharmaceutical companies. From Novartis Institutes' campus on Massachusetts Avenue, a stone's throw from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bradner will oversee some 6,000 researchers and support staff, including 2,500 in Cambridge.
He will move from an academic teaching hospital to Big Pharma at a time when, despite a pickup in the pace of scientific advances, the industry is consolidating and shedding research programs. Among his challenges will be pleasing corporate overseers across the Atlantic while living up to the legacy of Dr. Mark C. Fishman, the founding president who built the Novartis Institutes into a leader in genetic-based therapies for cancer and other diseases.
Colleagues say Bradner is up to the task. While keeping an active practice as a hematologist, he has been involved in hundreds of research collaborations locally and globally, said Dr. Kenneth C. Anderson, a Dana Farber colleague and Harvard Medical School professor. "He's an amazing source of scientific knowledge and is willing to help other [research] investigators," Anderson said.
"Jay is a force of nature," said Stuart L. Schreiber, a Harvard scientist and founding member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a genetic research organization. "And he's taking over what I personally think is the crown jewel position in all of biopharma."
Bradner, who won't join Novartis until Jan. 1, said it's too soon for him to talk about his plans, other than keeping Novartis on the forefront of medical research. He will spend two months working side-by-side with Fishman, who is turning 65 next year and retiring, before assuming the role of president on March 1.
While he is clear-eyed about the challenges, Bradner said the concentration of top researchers at Novartis combined with the research talent in Greater Boston will provide him with a big asset. He also cites Novartis' deep commitment to drug discovery and willingness to invest over the long-term, making it the ideal perch for bringing new medicines to market.
Novartis spends nearly $10 billion a year on research and development, more than any drug company, according to the London research firm Global Data.
"This is truly a pregnant moment in the golden age of biotechnology," Bradner said. "The velocity of scientific discovery is unprecedented, and Novartis has a storied commitment to discovery."
Bradner grew up in Highland Park, Ill., north of Chicago. Though his father was a lawyer and his mother an accountant, Bradner gravitated toward the sciences. He graduated from Harvard University and the University of Chicago Medical School and did his residency at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. He joined Dana-Farber in 2005.
He said his interest in drug discovery stems from a realization that first took hold when he started treating patients: Doctors lack the tools they need to help those suffering from cancer. (His father died eight years ago of pancreatic cancer, a disease for which there are still few effective treatments.)
"After I was trained as a medical doctor, I was struck by the inadequacy of our medicines for cancers," Bradner said. "When I was approached [by Novartis], I was immediately captivated by the opportunity to expand the impact of my research to the development of new therapies."
Bradner has co-authored more than 130 scientific publications and holds about 30 US patents. He has helped develop the emerging field of gene control, which seeks to regulate master switches that allow genes to express themselves in ways that cause disease. Among the cancer drug companies he has helped launch are Shape Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Cambridge, which targeted lymphoma, and Acetylon Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Boston, which targets multiple myeloma.
Bradner, who lives in Weston with his wife, Jennifer, a corporate attorney, and their three children, also manages to find time to play squash and guitar.
Those who know him say he has an insatiable curiosity and keeps up on medical developments, even outside his specialty of blood cancers, encouraging colleagues to explore different ways of approaching problems.
In tapping Bradner, Novartis chief executive Joseph Jimenez is following the playbook of his predecessor, Daniel Vasella, who spent months in 2002 wooing Fishman, then chief of cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital. Fishman had little interest in moving to Basel, Switzerland, where Novartis is based, so Vasella agreed to establish the company's global research center in Cambridge.
Fishman proved adept at corporate politics, maintaining strong ties with Novartis headquarters and keeping the research dollars flowing. Under his leadership, Novartis expanded its research into areas such as neuroscience, regenerative medicine, which seeks to heal damaged organs by regenerating healthy tissue, and immuno-oncology, which aims to use the body's immune system to fight cancer.
Novartis is testing about 500 drug candidates.
Fishman, who plans to teach and engage in more hands-on research when he leaves Novartis, describes Bradner, as "a very creative scientist and a very caring physician" who is also entrepreneurial.
"My advice to him," Fishman said, "is to keep his eye on the goal: to make medicines that are very important. You have to be a cheerleader through good times and bad."
Bradner acknowledges he has big shoes to fill, calling Fishman "a legendary figure in biomedical research."
Doug Cole , managing partner at Cambridge investment firm Flagship Ventures, said Bradner has skills and talent to fill them. Cole, who helped bankroll a startup, Syros Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Cambridge, based on Bradner's gene control technology, said he's seen Bradner "mesmerizing and motivating people in ways you rarely see" at a variety of medical and business settings.
"Jay's willing to entertain approaches that other people find daunting," Cole said. "A senior pharmaceutical executive told me, 'Jay Bradner doesn't think outside the box. Jay doesn't even know the box exists.' "
Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research
Corporate parent: Novartis AG of Switzerland
Research focus: Immuno-oncology, regenerative medicine, neuroscience
Worldwide employees: 6,000
Cambridge workforce: 2,500
Experimental drugs in clinic: About 500
Drugs recently approved: Entresto, Cosentyz, Farydak, and Odomzo.