TR: What was the idea behind Millennium when you helped launch it?
Levin: In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was in venture capital and got involved in starting up a lot of companies. I was hearing all this talk about the human genome, so I went out and spent part of my time in Europe and in the States visiting the major genome centers. I took a few years to meet all the people in academia and the industry and to get a sense of what was going on, and two or three key points came out of those discussions. One, the human genome would be sequenced within the next 10 years, so we would know what all the genes are. Even more importantly, people in medicine and science were saying that all human diseases had a significant genetic component-back then, that wasn’t common knowledge. When you thought about a genetic disorder, you’d think about cystic fibrosis. But we were beginning to realize that obesity and Alzheimer’s and cancer and every major human disease had a genetic component. This was the beginning of Millennium-building a technological and biological platform where we could actually get at the cause and pathway of all human disease, as opposed to the symptoms, by understanding the genome.
TR: How was Millennium’s strategy different from those of other biotech companies founded around the same time?
Levin: Everybody was excited about the genome, but as you might imagine, people thought about it differently. Some formed diagnostic companies by identifying mistakes or [diversity] in genes. Some built companies by compiling genomic information and selling the databases that arose from the information. Others realized that there were going to be important technologies to develop and you could sell these tools and form alliances around them. Millennium was focused from day one on building the biopharmaceutical company for the future by developing personalized therapeutic products.
TR: How has Millennium evolved since?
Levin: The vision is very consistent: identifying genes and proteins, thereby understanding the pathways that are involved in the causes of human disease, and developing products that are directly related to the causes. Over the last 10 years, we moved from genes to proteins [targets for drug discovery] to finding small molecules or antibodies that attack the targets, then into animal studies and now into human studies. And last night, we got approval for our first pharmaceutical product [a drug for a certain type of leukemia].
As the company has evolved, our overall strategy has focused on two key concepts. The first one is what we call personalized medicine; it’s finding the right target, finding the right drug for that target-and for that person. All of us in the future will be able to go into the doctor’s office with our genome on a chip, compare it to the available data on the genetic causes and pathways of different diseases and make decisions with our doctors about preventive and therapeutic medicine. It will tell us what we should be eating and not eating, and the kinds of tests we should be getting. And if we have a particular disease, it will assist us in choosing the best available therapies, based on our genetic makeup.
The second major effort, which is the biggest issue in the pharmaceutical industry today, is productivity. A major pharmaceutical company needs to produce somewhere between three to five new products a year to grow 10 to 15 percent a year. On average, companies produce one or two. So productivity is going to have to double and triple and quadruple over the next few years, or the industry will not survive as it is today. Millennium has put in place a technology platform from gene to patient to increase the productivity of the critical steps.