Barrett to step down at Genetic Therapy Rachel King, 36, named next CEO

July 24, 1996|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

M. James Barrett, often called "father of biotechnology in Maryland," is stepping down from the helm as chief executive officer at Genetic Therapy Inc., the Gaithersburg company he helped build into such a promising pioneer in gene therapy that it was bought last summer for $295 million by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Sandoz AG.

Sandoz, which is merging with Ciba-Geigy to become the world's second largest drug company, Novartis AG, will announce today that Barrett, 54, will be succeeded as chief executive officer by Rachel K. King, 36.

Sandoz officials said Barrett helped select King as the new CEO.

King, a Dartmouth and Harvard graduate who has no formal science background or training, is the first woman named to the helm of a major biotechnology company in Maryland.

She said she expects to assume the CEO post at Genetic Therapy on Aug. 31.

"It's interesting where life takes you," said King.

"This is an interesting, exciting company that one day will market gene therapies for diseases that have substantial therapeutic needs.

"I'm grateful to have the opportunity to be part of that. It will be challenging -- and fun."

King, who holds an MBA from Harvard, joined Genetic Therapy in 1989 as the manager of laboratory operations and promptly began working under Barrett's tutelage.

She became vice president for product planning in September 1993 and is credited with developing a team approach for moving promising gene-therapy products into clinical trials and, potentially, the market.

As CEO, King should play a leading role in championing the company's leading candidate for the market, a gene therapy for malignant brain cancer, through late-stage clinical trials and Food and Drug Administration hearings.

"Rachel is a really good choice for this company," said Charles Newhall III, a partner in New Enterprise Associates. The Baltimore-based venture capital company provided investment capital when Genetic Therapy was growing in the late 1980s and helped the company go public.

King wants Genetic Therapy and Novartis to be, if not the first, among the first companies to get a gene therapy on the market.

She said she expects to keep the company focused on developing gene therapies for debilitating diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Gauchers disease and some cancers.

A Sandoz spokeswoman said yesterday that Barrett leaves behind a lasting legacy, having built Genetic Therapy into a company with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and a track record of raising investor capital in often difficult market conditions.

Barrett founded Genetic Therapy in July 1987 with Dr. French Anderson, who headed a team of National Institutes of Health researchers that developed a method to genetically alter human cells outside the body so they would provide therapeutic benefits against disease and disorders once placed back into patients.

Barrett said that, while he is stepping down to pursue other interests, he expects to hold a consulting position with the company.

Before coming to Genetic Therapy, Barrett was president of Life Technologies, a Gaithersburg-based company that markets biotechnology research supplies worldwide.

He joined that company when it was known as Bethesda Research Laboratories and was listing under severe financial hardship. Barrett is credited with salvaging the company and helping it grow into a major supplier of biotechnology research equipment.

A soft-spoken, unassuming man who holds an MBA and a doctorate, Barrett is known in Maryland political and biotechnology circles as not only a wizard at stirring up investor capital, but also as an outspoken advocate for legal and other reforms that he believes are needed for biotechnology companies to survive and thrive in today's harsh business environment.

In particular, Barrett had campaigned for reforms to make it harder for investor suits to be filed against companies. He argued that such suits were too easy to file and were devastating to struggling, cash-strapped biotechnology companies.

"Jim is clearly the leading life sciences executive in our area," said Newhall at New Enterprise. "He could be named to almost any major company's board of directors and have a lot to contribute."

The companies Barrett helped create, said Newhall, "will leave two important, lasting legacies on this biotechnology revolution we're in."

Under Barrett's leadership, Life Technologies emerged as the leading supplier of the tools needed for life sciences research, and helped fuel the industry's growth in the United States, Newhall said.

As for Genetic Therapy, it will likely be one of the first companies to successfully show that gene therapy does work and get it approved for marketing, an event that could change the face of medicine as we know it today, Newhall said.

Barrett said yesterday he is confident that the company will successfully develop gene therapies for diseases, and bring them to the market.

While he would have liked to have seen a gene therapy approved for marketing during his tenure, Barrett said, he was extremely pleased with his imprint on the company and the field of gene therapy.

"If anything, I think I'll be known as having helped legitimize gene rTC therapy in the business community," said Barrett.

"I helped change what had been viewed for a long time as an interesting scientific hypothesis into a real prospect with vast resources and money behind it. That is really validation of a dream and I'm glad to have been part of that effort."

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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