Posted on Mar 22, 1996

For Dr. Jonathan Spicehandler '70, the decision to switch careers was simply a matter of numbers.

Once a clinical physician specializing in infectious diseases, he now is a leading researcher and businessman in the pharmaceutical industry.

“It's the difference between helping hundreds of people and helping millions,” says Spicehandler, the president of the Schering-Plough Research Institute in Kenilworth, N.J.

“I enjoyed being a practicing physician, but I'm the kind of person who isn't just going to do one thing for the rest of my life,” he explains.

The decision has been beneficial to both Spicehandler and Schering-Plough, one of the largest producers of pharmaceuticals in the world.

When Spicehandler arrived at Schering-Plough in 1982 after spending three years with the Swiss pharmaceutical company, Hoffman-La Roche, it was a $1.7 billion company with half of its interest in only moderately-profitable consumer goods, such as Coppertone, Afrin, and St. Joseph's Aspirin. Today, Schering-Plough is a $5.5 billion company with eighty-five percent of its profits coming from high tech medication for the treatment of cancers and other serious diseases.

During this period, Spicehandler's research institute has grown to 2800 scientists with a $600 million budget and research centers in the United States, France, Italy, Switzerland, and Japan.

The change, according to Spicehandler, occurred when the company began a progressive research strategy, investing a significant proportion of its research budget in the emerging field of biotechnology. “We took the 'step off the clif into the unknown,” he says. Today molecular biology and the tools of biotechnology are one of the major sources of new pharmaceutical products throughout the world.

Instead of relying on factories and manmade chemicals to produce new medications, Schering-Plough began experimenting with producing medication in living organisms. For example, by taking the human interferon gene and combining it with the E. Coli bacteria, scientists were able to manage the production of the drug
Interferon, now the most widely used drug in the world for treating cancers and serious viruses. For Schering-Plough, Interferon is a $500 million annual business.

At the same time, Schering-Plough did not abandon more classical approaches to drug discovery, inventing the most successful antihistamine in the world, Claritin, with worldwide sales to exceed $1 billion in 1996.

Spicehandler credits his years as a practicing physician for his success. That clinical experience forces him to always ask the question, “How will this research ultimately help the patient?”

“It used to be easy to succeed in the pharmaceutical business,” he says. “You didn't have to come up with innovative drugs and could rely on 'me too' products to stay competitive. And you could keep raising your prices every year because third parties paid for almost everything.”

In the 1990s, however, the playing field has tilted in favor of the truly high-tech companies. Not only can these companies afford the truly cutting edge
research, they can also produce drugs that will actually cure human diseases instead of simply treating symptoms.

For Schering-Plough and Spicehandler, that has meant taking another step off another cliff into the world of genomics and combinatorial chemistry. Under Spicehandler's direction, researchers are now studying the genetic basis for diseases like cancer and immunologic disorders. The approach will lead to new
targets for drug discovery as well as the world of gene therapy, where diseased chromosomes could be replaced, thus providing potential cures for cancer, diabetes and many other chronic disorders.

Researchers also are creating vast chemical libraries, so compounds can be screened and analyzed at a much faster rate than was previously possible. With a library of several hundred thousand chemicals at his fingertips, Spicehandler expects Schering-Plough to be able to screen millions of compounds every year. That kind of rapid discovery system may help reduce the costly process of finding and developing an effective drug.

“Scientists realize that most of the time, we're going to fail,” Spicehandler says.

For every 10,000 compounds that Schering-Plough synthesizes, perhaps three will be considered for development-and only one out of three products tested will make it onto the shelves. Spicehandler has to track that process, and every so often he must pull the plug on a product even after $150 million worth of research has already taken place.

Despite the challenges, Spicehandler says now is the best time in history to be a part of the pharmaceutical industry. “Science progresses to a certain point and then the medical applications begin to spin off,” he says. “That's the point where we're at right now.”

And in the midst of it all, this avid athlete manages to find time to raise four children, ski, golf, jog, and catch the Union hockey team when they play at Princeton.