Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology


by Cathryn Delude

June 6th, 2007

Vicki Sato

Vicki Sato figured she could give herself two years with a new biotech startup company before she acquired the “mark of Cain” that would prevent her from returning to academia. Twenty-five years later, just when she retired as a captain of biotechnology, MCB has lured her back, and so has the Business School.

“It was a big coup for MCB and Harvard to get Vicki,” affirms one of those who lured her, Greg Verdine, a Harvard College Professor and the Erving Professor of Chemistry. “She was enormously successful when she retired as President of Vertex Pharmaceuticals. The protease inhibitor she developed there electrified the drug discovery community, and it electrified Wall Street. Vicki was one of the few people that led drug discovery efforts from a perceived medical need to scientific knowledge to drugs that went into people for clinical treatment. She was the most accomplished female in the entire biotechnology industry,” and clearly at the very top overall.

Uncertain Prospects

In the mid 1970s, Sato looked outside her immunology lab in the Cell and Developmental Biology (CDB) Group, which was a precursor to the MCB. She saw only one female scientist with tenure at Harvard, and even after 8 years as an assistant and then associate professor, Sato thought the likelihood of gaining tenure was “pretty low.” Then she saw friends tinkering with genes and proteins in small biotech startups in the run-down warehouses that used to comprise Kendall Square. It looked enticing, but was it appropriate for scientists to dabble in industry?

“Those were revolutionary times,” she recalled of the days when the Cambridge City Council held hearings on the safety of genetic engineering. “The technology was exciting and full of promise, but we weren’t sure that biology should be applied to commercial purposes then. Most biologists stayed on the academic path.”

Sato had devoted much passion to the academic path. She did her undergraduate and graduate research in the precursor of the CDB: the Biology Department. In 1972, she earned her Ph.D. in Paul Levine’s lab, using classic genetic tools to study the light reactions of photosynthesis. She pursued those studies during her first post-doctorate at UC Berkeley, but her project required spending too much time in the dark and cold. She switched to warm-blooded organisms and immunology when she joined Leonard Herzenberg and Irv Weisman at Stanford Medical School for a second post-doctoral project on the cellular basis for how the body differentiates self from non-self.

Departing from Academia

In 1976, Sato returned to the CDB Group, until she began noticing the glass ceiling and the excitement in Kendall Square. She took a sabbatical to work at Angenics, a startup that developed diagnostic tools for agricultural and veterinary purposes.

“I really had fun!” she recalled. “I liked learning about venture capital and intellectual property. I decided to stay in industry for a while. But I was more interested in making drugs, where I thought the power of the emerging biotech industry would be.”

Her next move, in 1984, was to join future Nobel Laureates Walter Gilbert, her colleague from the CDB group and now Professor Emeritus in MCB, and MIT’s Philip Sharp at their startup, Biogen, which had just built one of the first new buildings in Kendall Square. Most of the scientists worked on identifying new genes and the proteins they encode, including those with complex function like the interferons. Biogen needed someone to develop cellular assays and animal models for insight into how to use these molecules in a medical setting. That seemed like an exciting opportunity – and a great challenge – for Sato.

At the time, interferon had been hyped as a wonder drug on the cover of Newsweek, but Biogen was struggling to meet expectations. Interferon became “the laughing stock of the big pharmaceutical companies,” Sato said. “But ultimately, it became a multibillion dollar drug that has saved many lives. The original vision was correct. The lesson for the biotechnology industry’s drug development dreams was how long it would take to get a drug approved.”

Sato spent 9 years at Biogen, during which she became Vice President of Research and headed research on inflammation, thrombosis, and HIV . Two drugs that came out of those efforts are Angiomax, an antithrombotic agent derived from the leech, and Avonex for multiple sclerosis, developed from beta-interferon.

She was then recruited to Vertex Pharmaceuticals, where she rose to the position of President and which grew from 60 employees to over 1,000. Vertex presented new challenges because it was the first biotech company not based on classic biotechnology – making drugs from proteins – but rather on organic chemistry, like the pharmaceutical companies. “Vertex thought the time was ripe for a small entrepreneurial organization to jump into the scientific arena of big pharma, which had grown inefficient through size and a failure to use the new emerging technologies well,” Sato said. Under her leadership, Vertex developed a diversified drug pipeline, including two HIV protease inhibitors now in clinical use and several drugs in clinical development: the Hepatitis C protease inhibitor (VX 950), two anti-inflammatory drug candidates, a novel molecule for the treatment of cystic fibrosis, and two anti-cancer kinase inhibitors.

Back in MCB

In 1993, Steve Harrison, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology invited Sato to be the first person from industry to become an academic tutor for undergraduates, following the British tutorial system. That landed Sato back in the department now called MCB. “I loved the contact with students,” she said. “They were interested in applying their science to commercial endeavors. The cultural barriers that I had faced had come down. I hoped that some of the students would become committed to bringing the amazingly powerful tools of science and biotechnology into the field of drug discovery and development.”

Just 3 months after she officially retired from Vertex, Verdine coaxed her into participating in the development of an upper-level undergraduate course on drug discovery.  “We needed someone with tremendous credibility,” explained Verdine.

So Sato returned, as Professor of the Practice of Molecular and Cellular Biology, to “a different but comfortably familiar” academic department – and the same lecture hall where she had taught 25 years earlier. She co-teaches the course, called Principles of Drug Discovery, with Verdine and Fishman.

“The course is a microcosm of the union of industry and academia,” Sato said, “and a union of science, biology, and medicine.” The class addresses questions such as: How do you know which product to develop as a drug? How do you go from an observed medical need to screening chemical candidates and then to formulating a safe treatment? How do you take your product through clinical trials and drug studies?

Teaching the Business of Science

Meanwhile, the Harvard Business School invited her join the faculty as Professor of Management Practice and to collaborate in a new strategic initiative there: the Science Based Business. She is co-teaching a course developed by Professor Lee Fleming, called “Commercializing Science and High Technology,” that delves into questions that intrigue Sato. “In an entrepreneurial setting, we all recognize innovation and creativity when we see it,” she reflected. “But how can you recognize the principles that drive sustainable innovation?” A second course at the Business School will be a new executive education course for the summer, entitled “Leading a Science-Based Enterprise.”

With three courses altogether and her continuing duties on the boards of numerous companies, Sato still has some time for extracurriculars. She gradually replaced her primary hobby, ballet dancing, with ballroom dancing, thanks to the influence of her elder daughter, who was captain for the Harvard Ballroom Dance Team until her graduation in 2006. “She also devotes tremendous time to undergraduates,” said Verdine, “attending innumerable House dinners with them and giving advice on everything from starting labs to starting companies.”

Flexible Boundaries Between Science and Industry

Being back in the familiar lecture hall highlights key changes from the academia of old. Besides having more tenured women scientists, there are new discussions about how science should expand, and where the boundaries are between academia and applied science, and between science and medicine. “People aren’t questioning the relevance of biology to industry anymore,” Sato asserted. “The question is how we do it.”

Today, being at the intersection of academia and industry is less risk-prone. “When I decided to join that startup, I said to myself that this could be the biggest career mistake I could ever make,” Sato laughed. “But I thought: how often do you get to be in at the start of a new industry? Maybe it won’t be successful, but if it is, it’s going to be a roller coaster ride!”  And far from having the mark of Cain, Vicki Sato returns to Harvard with a mark of distinction.

View Vicki Sato's Faculty Profile