Cathy Kerzner came to Tampa's M2Gen as an executive over a year ago. It wasn't long before she was running the place.
The longtime drug industry manager became interim chief executive last fall, succeeding Jim Utterback.
Kerzner, 53, who has dropped the "interim" from her title, now leads one of the region's cutting-edge biotech firms, a venture between pharmaceutical giant Merck and the Moffitt Cancer Center.
M2Gen, nearly 5 years old, has a growing profile and high expectations. It's just the kind of high-tech, cancer-fighting enterprise the region covets and the medical world hopes will help accelerate the arrival of "personalized" medicine based on treating cancer patients based on their individual genetic makeup.
Kerzner's extensive background in managing the development of drugs and working at such big industry companies as Wyeth and Cardinal Health gives her plenty of credentials. And her remarks last week at a forum on the business of biotech at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg College of Business made it clear Kerzner's well aware of the huge potential — in both medical and business circles — looming at M2Gen.
Kerzner sat down with the St. Petersburg Times before giving her USF remarks to elaborate on the company and biotech's possibilities.
You worked at some big drug companies around Philadelphia and even started your own business in New Jersey. Why come to Florida?
Wyeth, where I was working in 2009, was bought by Pfizer, which did not need more senior managers. And I wanted to get out of Philadelphia's winters. I landed in the Sarasota area and started networking. I joined the Tampa Bay Technology Forum and met (TBTF board member) Chris Paradies, now my partner (and a lawyer at Tampa's Fowler White Boggs law firm).
And from there, how did you end up at M2Gen?
I was consulting with biotech firms and met Moffitt chief scientific officer and M2Gen executive Tim Yeatman. He introduced me to (then M2Gen CEO) Jim Utterback. I joined in July 2010 as chief commercial officer for business development and marketing.
And four months later you are CEO? That's a quick jump.
I came in as interim chief executive. We were approaching the end of the five-year term that Merck had committed to M2Gen. Merck was involved in a merger with Schering-Plough and said it was not in a position to maintain the same level of collaboration. That's when Jim (Utterback) decided to leave and pursue other opportunities. It was a quiet transition. Since then, I'm no longer interim chief executive. Just CEO.
Many readers may have heard of M2Gen but are probably shaky on what it does. Can you tell me in simple terms?
We are trying to advance personalized medicine in the fight against cancer. We use the term "total cancer care" and envision following cancer patients their entire lives.
And how do you do that?
We are collecting tumor tissues of cancer patients, flash-freezing them after surgeries and storing them at minus 80 degrees centigrade in a repository in our Tampa facility. So far, we have 70,000 cancer patients signed up to participate, more than 22,000 tissue samples and finished the molecular profile of more than 15,000 samples. We are building a major database of cancer information at the genetic level.
And how will this help fight cancer and improve treatment?
Several ways. For a cancer patient, we can look at their tissue profile and see if there are any clinical trials using drug compounds that may be most effective to their personal needs. For drug companies wanting to test new compounds, we can identify those patients for clinical trials whose tissue profiles may be most likely to be helped by that specific drug.
And the advantage there is … ?
Clinical trials can be done faster and at less cost by using 30 or 40 handpicked patients with the right tissue profiles than the trial-and-error trials of old using 300 or 400 people. Patients are more likely to benefit and the drug companies can know more efficiently if this drug compound is a "go" or "no go." We create a higher level of predictability. Clinical trials typically have been notoriously hard to enroll.
So, are you more of a medical research firm or a database technology business?
Both. Gathering the tissues is key but creating a database whose information can be mined in a sophisticated way is critical. You need the right algorithms to search for data. That is a big deal.
Where is this all going?
For one thing, we are getting inquiries from overseas about the possibility of creating M2Gens internationally. This coming week, we will be visited by people from France and Luxembourg. We also see the day that a patient has his or her own molecular profile available on a chip or credit-like card. We call that our Big Hairy Audacious Goal.
We live and work in a metro area keen on developing better paying, 21st century jobs. How many people work at M2Gen?
We have 158 employees, including 85 at our Tampa headquarters and 73 at our consortium hospital sites and at Moffitt, including 22 at sites outside Florida.
What do you do when you're not at M2Gen?
I live near Channelside.
I get a kick out of watching the ships come in and out of the port. I go online at marinetraffic.com to identify what tankers or cruise ships are out on the water. I'm also on the board of a nonprofit group called Healthcare Business Women's Association, which helps advance leadership skills.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.