An NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
By Greg Cherryholmes | May 19, 2014

David WebbWhile many scientists have continued their career paths into industry, or stayed in academia, there are few who have been able to successfully traverse both arenas of research as well as David Webb. I recently had a discussion with Dr. Webb about some of the transitions that young scientists (graduate students and post-doctoral fellows) face when looking to enter positions in academia or industry.

GC: The biotech/health science industries, as well as biomedical-related academia, have changed dramatically in the past five years. What changes have stuck in your memory over the years? Where do you think the changes will happen in both academia and industry in the next decade?

DW: There are several intersecting changes in biomedical science that represent a true revolution in how research is done. These include, in no particular order, all of the ‘omics’, genomics, proteomics, metabelomics and so forth; the rapid growth in information technology/informatics capability; high through-put structural biology, mass spectroscopy, NMR and other related advances have changed in a very fundamental way, how research is done. This is coupled with the increasing realization that the task of providing treatments for very complex diseases requires a very different approach to research than has been practiced before. Suffice to say, it has been realized by senior research management that it is not possible to carry out drug discovery programs without developing ever more extensive networks of academic as well as industrial collaborations. Oddly, after all the consolidation in large pharma, we now have what I term the “Balkanization of industrial research” with large numbers of small companies and contract research organizations (CROs) serving each other’s needs.

This has led many large pharma/biotech companies to shrink their early discovery research groups to core teams of people with specific expertise who can rapidly exploit fundamental discoveries of new therapeutic targets that lead to clinical testing in as short a time as possible. Short, in this case is usually a minimum of three years from inception to move a nascent drug discovery program to the point of having an IND (Investigational New Drug) candidate. This also depends on whether the putative therapeutic is a biologic (e.g., monoclonal antibody) or a small molecule. This puts tremendous pressure on the discovery research group. It has also led to the rise of specialty CROs that can carry out parallel research support in chemistry, pharmacology, screening and pre-clinical IND enabling studies. Thus, outsourcing for specialized research needs is increasingly common particularly in the major biotech hubs where small startup companies routinely outsource research outside their core expertise.

Predictions in fast moving fields are invariably 99% wrong. Thus, to predict what will happen in the next 10 years is frankly impossible. All we can say for certain is that the pace of new discoveries will accelerate and our understanding the very complex nature of human biology will improve. It is likely we will see an intensifying effort in providing gene therapies, stem cell based therapies, and bioengineering-based solutions to disease mitigation. This also means that each of us is likely to find ourselves in a variety of research environments during our careers that might include stints in biotech, specialty pharmas, CRO’s, academia, large international consortia, etc. Large pharma/biotechs may increasingly become development and marketing organizations rather than having large research groups.

GC: You joined the biotechnology industry while it was still in its infancy, where you have held several managerial positions as well as scientist positions. What challenges did you not expect to see working in a highly evolving industry?

DW: The single most striking thing to me when I moved into industry both on the pharma and biotechnology side was just how difficult it is to make a new therapeutic. It is the hardest thing to do in all of biomedical science. Many industry scientists can spend a lifetime doing research and never be associated with a successful drug program (e.g. a marketed drug). No matter what the technology innovations are and no matter the hype, it takes enormous dedication, time and a fair amount of luck to make a drug. Aside from the science, there are also all the commercial considerations that impact the research in ways that I didn’t know existed when I began. Otherwise perfectly good productive research programs can and will be cancelled for business reasons or because the business management feel that the program is taking too long and costing too much. Senior research management is constantly having to justify its’ research programs. Budgets run on a year to year basis regardless of the fact that research programs are multi-year. This means that many times there will be seemingly artificial deadlines inserted into programs where a certain amount of progress is expected within a certain time frame although it has nothing whatever to do with the actual progress of the research. Such deadlines are frustrating to both research management and the scientists under their direction. By contrast in small companies, the pressure to produce real progress that can be presented to one’s investors is enormous and unlike large companies, researchers in small companies are not shielded from this pressure. So the pleasure of working with a small group of highly motivated, productive colleagues is always impacted by the pressure to produce useful results. The result is that one needs a thick skin and a singular dedication to ones work to be successful.


During his illustrious 40+ year career, Dr. David Webb (currently an Adjunct Professor at the Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in La Jolla, California) has been actively involved in both academia and industry, holding senior positions at numerous companies and adjunct/consulting professorships at several prestigious institutions. Dr. Webb graduated from Rutgers University with a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology. Following graduation, he became a Dernham Junior Fellow of the American Cancer Society at University of California San Francisco from 1971-1973. Since then, Dr. Webb has been actively involved in both academia and industry, including positions such as Associate member at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology and Distinguished Scientist and Institute Director positions at Syntex, Inc. Dr. Webb has held many academic research jobs in addition to the Roche Institute: Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University, Adjunct Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at New York Medical College, and a Consulting Professor of Cancer Biology at Stanford University. Dr. Webb has also held several management positions, in both academia and the life science industry, including: senior manager positions at several biotechnology companies (including Syrrx, OSI Pharmaceuticals, and Cadus Pharmaceutical Corp.), Chairman of the Board of Sorrento Therapeutics, Chairman Emeritus of the Board of BIOCOM, Member of the Executive Committee of the Board of CONNECT (San Diego), and Vice President of Research at Celgene-San Diego.