Former chairman of Schering-Plough was one of the first to dive into recombinant DNA technology, helped develop interferon
By Kirsten Weir | August 8, 2006
Jonathan Spicehandler, retired chairman of the Schering-Plough Research Institute, died July 30 from brain cancer. He was 57.
Spicehandler is credited with helping develop a widely-used IV antibiotic and interferon, leading to the first approved drug for hepatitis C. He was both a physician (trained in infectious diseases) and a businessman -- an unusual combination in the pharmaceutical industry, according to mentor and close friend James Rahal, director of the infectious disease section at NY Hospital Queens and a professor of medicine at Weill Medical College at Cornell University.
"At the time the pharmaceutical industry did not attract well trained academic physicians," Rahal told The Scientist. "He went into the pharmaceutical industry almost as a pioneer from the infectious disease world."
Spicehandler brought a great deal to the industry, his friend added. "He had tremendous clinical and scientific insight."
At Hoffman-La Roche, Spicehandler was responsible for the clinical development of intravenous antibiotics. He helped to create ceftriaxone, an IV antibiotic now used widely around the world, according to Rahal. "It's saved hundreds of thousands of lives," he said.
In 1982, Spicehandler joined New Jersey-based Schering-Plough as senior director of immunology. He was appointed president of the company's research division in 1993, advanced to chairman in 2002, and retired only weeks before his death. When he joined the company in 1982, it was a $1.7 billion company. In 2005 Schering-Plough reported net sales of $9.5 billion.
At Schering-Plough, Spicehandler helped develop interferon. The naturally occurring immune protein had been discovered decades before, but wasn't put to therapeutic use until researchers began to cultivate it in large quantities using recombinant DNA technology. "When [Spicehandler] came to Schering-Plough it was in the earliest days of biotechnology, and we were one of the first pharmaceutical companies beginning to get interested in recombinant DNA," Robert Spiegel, Schering-Plough's chief medical officer, told The Scientist.
Schering-Plough's interferon drug, Intron-A, was the first medication approved for hepatitis C, which can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. Today interferon is also used to treat some forms of cancer, and eradicates the virus in more than half of patients when taken with the antiviral ribavirin -- a combination Spicehandler helped develop, according to Spiegel. "He believed in that combination and it was developed under his leadership," Spiegel said.
Spicehandler also oversaw the development of Zetia, a drug that blocks absorption of cholesterol from food. While most cholesterol medications work in the liver, Zetia targeted the digestive tract. Enrico Velti, vice president of cardiovascular, dermatology and endocrinology at Schering-Plough, said Spicehandler considered Zetia a great achievement, simply because of the vast numbers of people it could help. "He felt he was doing something that was really going to benefit people," Velti said.
Even though Spicehandler moved from medicine to industry, he never put aside his training as a physician when making business decisions. His first consideration was always what a drug could mean to patients and their doctors, Spiegel said. "As much as Jon understood the commercial side, it meant something extra because he was passionate about what the products could mean to patients."
Spicehandler earned his medical degree in 1974 from St. Louis University School of Medicine. He trained at New York University and the New York Veterans Administration Hospital under Rahal.
After being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2001, he began a foundation and raised more than $1 million to support neuro-oncology research at Duke University's Brain Tumor Center. "I think everyone who knew him admired his optimism," Rahal said.
Jonathan Spicehandler is survived by his wife Debra and their four children.
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"Schering-Plough Corporation mourns death of Jonathan R. Spicehandler, MD, retired R&D head," Schering-Plough press release, July 31, 2006.
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S. Bunk, "Looming hepatitic C epidemic sparks new research," The Scientist, December 8, 1997.
B. Dixon, "Research opens door for new applications of interferon," The Scientist, April 3, 1989.