The unspeakable tragedy in Haiti may just have given Americans a medical wakeup call. For all of our lives we have witnessed a parade of Medicine’s Modern Miracles — and most of us have become a bit inured. We tend to view the delivery and even the advancement of vital technologies as innately part of our civilized life. Yet Haiti’s nearby monumental disruption might just remind us that medicine and its advancements are not a self-propelling resource that progresses onward, unaided.

Advanced and better-distributed medicine takes community efforts, and it demands society’s will to fund. At the 17th Annual BioNJ Dinner Meeting and Awards program, on Thursday, January 28, at 5 p.m. at the Hilton in East Brunswick, New Jersey’s 250 life science company members and many interested guests will gather to honor those most dedicated to such innovative progress. At the dinner, Sol Barer, CEO of Celgene, will present the Dr. Sol J. Barer Award for Vision, Innovation and Leadership to #b#John Johnson#/b#, president of the global oncology business unit at Eli Lilly and Company. Cost: $255. Visit www.biotechnj.org.

Shortly after Johnson entered East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania his grandmother died of gastric cancer. “I remember the feeling of helplessness — of wanting to do something,” says Johnson. “That has been a large part of what has driven me in this field.”

For more than 20 years, Johnson has been battling back against that disease in all its forms. In 1983 he began in healthcare with Pfizer’s sales and marketing team. Five years later he joined Johnson & Johnson, working on the commercial side to bring to market many Ortho-McNeil brands, including Levaquin, Ultram, and Topamax.

After a two-year hiatus in which Johnson served as CEO of Parkston Medical Information Systems, he returned to Johnson and Johnson in 2002 and was subsequently named company group chair for the corporation’s worldwide biopharmaceuticals unit. In 2007 Johnson served as CEO of ImClone Systems and successfully guided that company’s merger with Eli Lilly in November 2008.

In his role as head of Lilly’s Global Oncology Business Unit, Johnson oversees 23 molecules being developed for cancer treatments and an additional three new products. These therapies halt tumor growth by cutting off nutrient flow and targeting growth factor receptors. “With the combined efforts of ImClone and Eli Lilly, we have been able to develop some really exciting therapies that we can now bring to trial,” he says.

#b#In the pipeline#/b#. One of Johnson’s most promising weapons in his anticancer arsenal holds the snappy nickname, Ramucirumab. Like so many therapies, Ramucirumab enhances that best cancer defense, the body’s own immune system. To grow and spread, cancerous tumors require nutrients. This feeding process, called angiogenesis, is achieved by proliferating blood vessels surrounding the tumor.

The VEGF protein (vascular endothelial growth factor) enhances such tumor blood vessel growth. Ramucirumab works by releasing the binding agent VEGFR-2 within the body to halt the VGEF protein and cut off the nutrient flow to tumors.

“We are currently moving Ramucirumab into Phase III trials for multiple cancers, from gastric to breast,” says Johnson. “Everything looks hopeful.”

Phase III represents that home stretch in which a medication is tested on humans and compared with more traditional treatments. If this works, Ramucirumab may join the ranks of Johnson’s three proven medicines, Erbitux, Gemzar, and Alimta, the last of which has seen a 41-percent growth in the effective lung cancer treatments.

#b#Getting personal#/b#. “Payers only want to pay for what works,” says Johnson. “The most expensive treatment is the one that produces no results.” With that common sense maxim in mind, he is urging life science developers toward a personalization of treatment.

The vaccine-style, one-medicine-fits-all therapies simply leave too many untreated. He cites the ImClone-developed Erbitux, which works well in treating colorectal cancer sufferers who have a wild-type K-ras gene, but remains totally ineffective in those individuals where the K-ras gene has mutated.

“We’ve got to look for the biomarkers and line up the subsets of patients on whom our new innovations will work,” says Johnson. “When my father was stricken with prostate cancer he did not ask what percent of patients respond to the suggested treatment. He asked whether this treatment would work for him.”

#b#Future hopes#/b#. Recession-era funding is naturally tight. For that reason, companies that can increasingly individualize their medications will be the ones that show the biggest bang for the government buck. At the same time, Johnson feels, the burden falls to the government to promote increased access to greater numbers of patients (a la healthcare reform). Additionally, in these times of few and trembling investors, the greater the IP and patent protection, the more likely life science companies will lure out the needed funding.

Hopefully, it will not require periodic disasters to keep our people and legislators pushing forward the medical miracle juggernaut. Perhaps, a more realistic slant to the medical innovation process might come from our own backyard. The newly released film “Extraordinary Measures” portrays the very real struggles of Princetonian John Crowley and his Cranbury firm Amicus Therapeutics in seeking a cure for Pompe Disease, which had smitten his two children (U.S. 1, January 10, 2010).

It’s not all lab work and “Eureka.” The more we realize the enormity of the efforts which have brought us to this historic pinnacle of health, the more we are likely to get behind them and keep on pushing.

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