Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Move from University to Industry was Murder!

When I left Case Western Reserve University to assume a position at Wyeth, it was two years after the Wyeth take-over of American Cyanamid (Lederle).  The anti-infectives group consisted of both an anti-bacterial and an anti-viral effort.  The group of about 35 people, which I was to direct, had still not really been assimilated into Wyeth.  Two weeks before I was due to start my new job, on a Sunday evening, I received a telephone call from the Associate Director for Viral Research, Dr. B.  I had not met him during my visit just a few days earlier when I was introduced to a number of the people who would be working for me.  Dr. B was clearly in a panic and was talking so fast (with an Irish accent), that I could barely understand him. I was told during my interview process that Wyeth management was considering jettisoning the entire anti-viral effort in order to focus on their anti-bacterial effort.  I had explained that if they were going to take that step, they would have to do so before my arrival.  The other choice for them was to await my arrival, let me review the program myself and make a decision on whether to continue the anti-viral effort or not.  All the employees were aware of the ax hanging over them.

Dr. B said something about murder – which got my full attention. 

“Say that again.”

“My boss, the Director of Antiviral Research, was murdered last night.  His wife and a cousin were discovered trying to ditch body parts in the Passaic River in the middle of the night.”

Of course, what I didn’t know was that the Director was like a father figure to his employees – they worshipped him.  I met the Director just a few days prior when I was at Wyeth for my pre-employment physical exam.  Dr. B was distraught to say the least.  Behind his immediate loss of a well-loved supervisor was his worry, and that of everyone else, about the potential loss of jobs and a way of life at Wyeth (American-Cyanamid (Lederle).  What could I do, anyway?  I was 600 miles away in Cleveland getting ready to move. I didn’t really know any of the employees nor did I know anything about their programs (at least in any detail).  (I leave you to reflect on this method of recruitment). 

“Please give everyone my sincere condolences.  Tell them not to worry about their job situation.  Nothing is going to change for now.  Everyone should spend some time dealing with his or her loss.  We’ll get to the programs after that.  Will you be able to take over leadership of the group at least until I get there?”  All this said before I had formally started working.

I called my soon to be new boss – Dr. J – and explained the situation that was brewing.  He had already been informed of the murder. He offered to get involved personally, but since the employees identified him with the threat of the ax, I counseled that he let me deal with the situation from Cleveland for the next couple of weeks.  He could always intervene if needed.  Dr. J agreed.  Dr. B and I had daily telephone conversations for the two weeks until my arrival in Pearl River, New York.

As it turned out, I thought that two of the programs in anti-virals were promising – one on CMV where the compounds turned out to be unstable and toxic, and the other for RSV where we made it all the way to Phase II before we discovered that the lead compound caused birth defects in animals and that program was terminated.  The anti-viral group survived and almost doubled in size during my tenure at Wyeth.  We even established an active collaboration with ViroPharma for the discovery and development of drugs targeting Hepatitis C virus.  After my departure, the entire anti-infectives group was laid off when Wyeth abandoned this field of research altogether.

I will never forget my experience of those first few weeks and months transitioning to industry from academia with the cloud of a brutal murder and the threat of mass firings hanging over both my new employees and me.  I’m sure they will never forget it either.  

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