To appreciate why Haseltine has the audacity to pronounce that his company sees the light while others continue to grope in darkness, consider that Human Genome Sciences, like most young biotechnology companies, has no products on the market and, so, must sell its vision. It also helps to know a few things about William Alan Haseltine.Haseltine and his three siblings grew up on a naval base in China Lake, CA, a “secret city” in the Mojave Desert where their father and other scientists designed the Sidewinder missile and the ejection seat used in fighter jets. Their mother, Jean, who taught French on the base, required frequent hospitalization for manic depression and a series of serious physical ailments, including severe psoriasis and a myopia that stressed her eyeballs and made her retinas detach. At seven, Bill, too, became ill with a heart condition called pericarditis that kept him out of school for six months.
“I did not like being sick, and I hated my mother being sick,” he says. “I was terrified that she was going to die of blood poisoning. She had terrible psoriasis. I would actually go in and watch those red streaks go up her arm. And I knew if those red streaks went too far she would die. And that was a very upsetting thing. Kids are likely to feel responsible. It was a hopeless feeling.” The turmoil led the young Haseltine to medicine. “I wanted to be a doctor to cure these diseases,” he says.
After earning a BA in physical chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1966, Haseltine decided that his true love was research science, and he entered a PhD program at Harvard studying under Walter Gilbert (see “Bankrolling the Future,”). Gilbert, who shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1980, remembers Bill as “a very lively student” who “alienated” some of the other grad students. Haseltine went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT in the lab of David Baltimore, who himself would win, in 1975, the Nobel Prize in medicine. “Bill was very smart and dominating,” says Baltimore, who is now the president of Caltech. “He did some wonderful work, and he didn’t make a lot of close friends. Bill is out to do as much as he possibly can in the world, and in some ways, it’s good for the world, but it doesn’t make him a beloved figure.”
Haseltine moved on to Dana-Farber, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School, rising through the academic ranks to become a full professor. He accumulated a rsum that also includes starting several biotechs, raising two children, becoming a big-shot AIDS researcher who hobnobbed with the likes of Liz Taylor, getting divorced, and marrying Gale Hayman, cofounder of Giorgio in Beverly Hills, CA, inspiration for Judith Krantz’s Scruples and author herself of How Do I Look? The Complete Guide to Inner and Outer Beauty: From Cosmetics to Confidence. Along the way, Haseltine impressed colleagues with his polymathic, capacious mind and simultaneously irritated them with what critics like Leroy Hood (see “Under Biology’s Hood,” TR September 2001), a leading figure in the biological research community, call his “arrogance and infinite selfishness.” As Hood, who recently founded the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, puts it, “Bill raises as much animosity as admiration.”
When I visited, Haseltine’s office at Human Genome Sciences offered another clue as to why he rubs so many scientists the wrong way. A table framed by a long wall of windows looking into the Maryland woods had on it little plastic-coated wire stands displaying a few dozen scientific journals, books and popular magazines. The collection was, in its intellectual sweep, mesmerizing. But for all that gravitas, the display was obviously there for show-who puts what they’re reading on little stands?-and was meant to dazzle the visitor. Haseltine’s words, similarly, often aim to dazzle, which is antithetical to the belief of many scientists that data should speak for themselves.
Sitting in his office, I ask Haseltine about his legion of critics, and he smiles. “The dog barks and the caravan passes,” he says in French. Then, in English, he adds, “Who gives a good goddamn what people think? Do well and let them say what they want.”
There is substance behind Haseltine’s bravado, which is obvious to anyone who sees a demonstration of the Oracle-something that, remarkably, few leaders of the genomics revolution have done. “They have a very arrogant, self-centered view, which is they are the world, they are the heroes, they are the white knights,” says Haseltine. “I don’t think that people have any idea of the power of what it is that we do, because it’s two or three steps beyond what they can imagine.”
The back wall of the company’s conference room explains another reason that relatively few of the world’s scientists have had access to the Oracle. The wall is cluttered with dozens of bronzed versions of official documents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In fact, by July of this year, Human Genome Sciences had 179 “gene-based” patents and had filed patent applications on at least 7,500 other newly discovered genes for which it has declared medical utility. Anyone who wants to use the firm’s database must agree to give up any medical utility discovered. So researchers stay away.