Tell us about your childhood. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, New York. Ours was a pretty typical, middle-class family. My father was a self-made, self-employed businessman and my mother was a homemaker. My brother and I are first-generation Americans; our parents came from Europe and met in the U.S. in the 1950s. Neither of them had gone to college. I was supposed to attend Forest Hills High School, but I applied to attend one of New York’s specialized high schools and ended up getting into Stuyvesant High School. So, every day, I took the subway to Manhattan for school. Going to Stuyvesant was an eye-opening experience for me because it exposed me to some absolutely amazing teachers and helped me focus my energy into the sciences.
Why did science appeal to you?
Even before high school, science “clicked” for me more than the subjects in the humanities.
I was one of those rare kids who loved going to the doctor, and my pediatrician was one of my early role models in science. He was amazing, unbelievably kind, and, as a kid, I thought what he did was sort of magical. When I was in high school and starting to think about my future, I knew I was heading toward science and I was reasonably certain that I was heading toward medicine. In college, I wasn’t a dedicated premed student, but medical school was on my radar.
When did your focus shift to hematology and research?
After graduating as a chemistry major from Wesleyan University in Connecticut – where I learned that I loved being in the lab – I earned my MD from the State University of New York Upstate Medical University. Next, I went to Boston to do my internship and residency at what was then called the Tufts New England Medical Center.
I was convinced early in my internship that I wanted to stay in academic medicine, but, like many interns, I wanted to do something different every month. One month, I wanted to be an infectious disease specialist, and the next month I thought about specializing in renal medicine. I cycled through all the different subspecialties. The lightbulb went off as a first-year resident when I was on a hematology rotation. The attending that month happened to be Robert Schwartz, MD.
Working with Dr. Schwartz as a resident, I watched him synthesize a patient’s illness by taking the history, conducting exams, and examining blood under the microscope. Pulling it all together, it became clear to me how amazing hematology was. I fell in love with that whole approach and he became my professional mentor.
I didn’t see any other sub-specialties, at least in my myopic view at the time, where you took care of everything about that patient. I am biased, but blood is the center of the soul. I just loved sitting at the microscope doing hematology work. That rotation with Dr. Schwartz cemented my decision to apply for a fellowship in hematology and oncology.
I stayed in Boston to do a fellowship at Tufts because I wanted to train with two amazing hematologists: Dr. Schwartz and Jane Desforges, MD, a former president of the American Society of Hematology. She was a brilliant and compassionate physician and teacher. Eventually, as she retired, I took over most of her practice. It was a true honor to know both Drs. Schwartz and Desforges as incredible hematologists and mentors.
After beginning your career in academic medicine, what prompted you to join the pharmaceutical industry?
I think of academic medicine as the first segment in my three-part career so far. I stayed on the academic faculty at Tufts for 13 years. I had a busy malignant hematology practice. This included attending responsibilities on the bone marrow transplant and leukemia services, maintaining a small research lab, and teaching responsibilities at the medical school. Eventually, I became head of the Tufts Cancer Center.
At that point, I thought that I would spend the rest of my career in academic medicine. But, in 2000, I ended up meeting the CEO of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, a biotechnology company based in Cambridge. Two things happened around this time: One was a general recognition that what makes me tick as a physician is my love of taking care of patients, but also a realization that I was only able to reach one patient or family at a time. The available medicines weren’t making the kind of impact that I thought we needed.
On the industry side, there was growing excitement about the quality of research and the academicians moving to that world. I realized that if I could help shepherd a medicine to approval, I could potentially help tens or hundreds of thousands of patients around the world. I was ready for a change that would allow me to boost my impact factor.
“I didn’t see any other sub-specialties, at least in my myopic view at the time, where you took care of everything about that patient. I am biased, but blood is the center of the soul.”
–David Schenkein, MD
So, in January 2001, I became the company’s first head of oncology. I spent nearly 19 years in the pharmaceutical industry, which included five years running oncology drug development at Millennium and bringing bortezomib to market, helping to change the way we treat multiple myeloma. From there, I was recruited to run all of cancer medicine at Genentech out in California. During this time, I still saw patients one day a week, as I was able to also hold positions at Tufts, and then at Stanford.
After Roche bought Genentech in 2009, I decided that I didn’t want to stay with a big company. Around this time, I heard about Agios, a startup in Boston that was looking at the metabolic pathways of cancer cells. So I went back to the East Coast and joined a handful of employees as the first CEO of Agios. During my 10-year tenure there, I oversaw the discovery and development of two important medicines approved for acute myeloid leukemia (AML) – ivosidenib and enasidenib – and a host of other exciting investigational products.
If pharma was the second stage, what is the third stage of your career?
Four months ago, I stepped away as CEO to become executive chair of the board of directors at Agios. During this time, I took on a new role as a general partner at GV (formerly Google Ventures), where I colead the life sciences investment team. We’re focused on investing in the next-wave life science companies that could have a huge impact on patients’ lives. It’s early, so I’m still figuring everything out, but so far, it’s been incredibly exciting.
Do you ever think about going back to academic medicine full time?
When I was in the biotechnology industry, I was offered some significant leadership roles in academic institutions, and I seriously considered them. But I think what kept me from taking those was, again, the ability to make a bigger impact on the industry side. I’m now seeing a whole new wave of companies on the GV side that have enormous potential for impact.
What did you learn from your experiences in industry that you couldn’t learn in academia?
When I went through medical school and training, no one really spent time training us how to be leaders. We were being trained as physicians, period. Some physicians grow up to become leaders of institutions, and some are great, and some are not so great. On the industry side, however, the leadership spends time on developing whatever your expertise is – whether you’re a chemist or a drug developer – and there is a lot of opportunity to grow as a leader. Now, we are seeing more industry leaders going back into leadership roles in academia; I think that experience is very helpful.
What would you tell a trainee or physician who is thinking about moving from academic medicine to industry?
The biggest predictor of how well you will do is how humble you are. Patient care usually is more of an individual sport, but industry is a team sport, so you have to leave your ego at the door and play on a team.
Throughout each phase of your career, what accomplishments are you most proud of? On the flip side, are there any major disappointments?
I’ve been fortunate to be involved in many things that have turned out well. I’ve always said that my two proudest accomplishments are our children; they are in their 30s now and are fantastic humans.
On the career side, it’s difficult to find a greater sense of accomplishment than caring for a very sick patient and being able to put his or her disease into remission or hopefully even cure it. Thinking about the achievements that have had the greatest impact on medicine, I am proud of the two recent approvals from Agios.
With the other companies I was involved in, the drugs were already in some stage of development. At Agios, I was involved from the very beginning – from discovering and validating the target, to developing the medicine, conducting clinical trials, getting approval, and launching the product. I think these products are going to change the way we think about treating AML.
I’d say the biggest disappointments in my full-time medicine days were when patients didn’t do well and their disease eventually won out. It’s always disappointing because you just wish you could have done more.
And yes, there are disappointments in drug development all the time. To handle those, we look for the lessons learned. Just like we have morbidity and mortality conferences in medicine, we discuss what went well, what didn’t go well, and what we could do differently with the next medicine.
You mentioned having two kids – did either of them follow in your footsteps into medicine?
Our son is 33 and works for a big video game company in New York, and our daughter is 31 and has been in a research lab at Memorial Sloan Kettering for a long time. She is now working on a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University. They both grew up in Massachusetts, but somehow, they both ended up in New York.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I work from GV’s Boston office, so it’s nice being on the East Coast again and closer to the kids. Spending time with family is great, and sports have always played a major role in my life. I’ve always played racquet sports. I played both competitive tennis and squash during school and was a nationally ranked squash player in medical school. I still play squash about once a week, but more recently I’ve taken up running. I’m not quite sure why, but it’s easy; you just put your sneakers on and go.
Who is your dream dinner party guest?
The name that keeps popping into my head is John Lennon. I grew up in the late ’60s and early ’70s as a huge Beatles fan. I was fascinated by not only the music, but his passion for peace and love. I wouldn’t have anything specific to ask. I’d sit, listen, and be amazed.