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Re-Imaging a Career

Peter Lassota escaped Communist Poland to find success in capitalism in America.

Bob Grant
Bob Grant

Bob Grant is Editor in Chief of The Scientist, where he started in 2007 as a Staff Writer.

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Peter Lassota's scientific career began on the sidewalks of Warsaw, Poland. At the urging of a grammar school teacher, the preteen Lassota entered a mathematics competition and trained for the contest with the help of his hometown's pedestrian infrastructure. "I remember we walked with our colleagues through the streets of Warsaw with a piece of chalk in our hands and a piece of paper with the problem to solve," Lassota says, "and when we had a solution, we just wrote it down on the sidewalk."

The Polish youngster advanced all the way to the national finals of that competition. His sidewalk education and resulting success launched Lassota on a trajectory that took him through academia and into the biotech industry by opening up opportunities that were not necessarily afforded his peers growing up in Communist Poland.

<figcaption> Credit: © 2007 Michael Sugrue photography / sugrue.com</figcaption>
Credit: © 2007 Michael Sugrue photography / sugrue.com

Lassota, now 51, is divisional vice...

From Chemistry to Cancer

Young Lassota was able to choose from Warsaw's many high schools, based on his performance in that grammar school math contest. He would go on to study chemistry in high school and compete in another academic competition in that subject. In that competition, Lassota did even better than he had in the math contest, placing among the top 25 contestants in the country.

Donten met Lassota during that chemistry competition, and the two remain friends today. "Usually when people compete against you, they focus on their work and tend not to show their results," says Donten, "Peter was very open."

Donten and Lassota - who, thanks to his success in the chemistry competition, again had his choice of Polish academic institutions - attended the University of Warsaw, both studying chemistry. Donten remembers that Lassota was elected as the university's freshman class president shortly after arriving on campus. "He was the leader of our year, probably because of his personality and probably because of his height," says Donten of the 6'4" Lassota. "Everyone noticed him."

<figcaption>Lassota in his office Credit: © 2007 Michael Sugrue photography / sugrue.com</figcaption>
Lassota in his office Credit: © 2007 Michael Sugrue photography / sugrue.com

The same qualities that would make Lassota a good manager in the corporate arena years later were already taking shape in his undergraduate days. "When he spoke in meetings," recalls Donten, "a lot of students felt like they could trust him and that he would be a good leader of our community."

After earning his undergraduate degree, Lassota stayed at the University of Warsaw for a Master's degree in chemistry, developing several compounds that had potential uses as drugs. In his PhD work at the Polish Academy of Sciences, Lassota took these compounds from the synthetic chemistry realm into testing in the biochemistry lab. "As a chemist, I made some compounds, and I always thought that biologists were not really taking full advantage of them," he explains, "They didn't evaluate them that well, so I started to do it myself."

Guided by his newfound use for biology and a fascination with cancer physiology, Lassota completed his PhD in the late 1980s. He then got a postdoctoral fellowship at the Sloan-Kettering Institute and moved, with his wife Ivona, to New York City. Against the wishes of the Polish government, Lassota stayed in America, becoming a research associate at New York Medical College's Cancer Research Institute, where his Sloan-Kettering lab moved in 1990.

A Move to Industry

It was at New York Medical College that Lassota became aware of the harsh logistical realities that academic research sometimes presents. "I realized that it was getting more and more difficult to get grant money," he remembers, "particularly from the perspective of a smaller institution."

Thinking that the funding environment might be more hospitable in industry, Lassota took a senior researcher position at American Cyanamid, but quickly learned that conducting research in the corporate realm presents other challenges. When Lassota started at American Cyanamid in 1992, talks of acquisition were already in the air. Lassota says that his first holiday party at the company was half-jokingly referred to as "the last supper."

At American Cyanamid, Lassota collaborated on a National Cooperative Drug Discovery Group Grant with corporate and academic partners. He was particularly interested in tubulin inhibitors, such as HTI 286, which eventually made it into Phase II clinical trials thanks to his early studies.

American Home Products acquired American Cyanamid in 1995. While he and most of his American Cyanamid colleagues didn't lose their jobs as a result of the acquisition, it provided Lassota a glimpse of the uncertain nature of corporate research. "It was my first lesson of how stable things are in industry," he says with irony. "It was sort of a very brutal reality check."

He decided to leave American Cyanamid for the newly-formed Novartis in 1997. There, Lassota worked as an upper level pharmacologist, evaluating the activity of antitumor compounds in animal models. He oversaw successful research in his Novartis lab, taking part in studies on LBH589, a deacetylase inhibitor that is showing promise in treating leukemia and lymphoma and is about to enter Phase III clinical trials.

The key to Lassota's success at Novartis was a managerial style shaped by his tranquil nature and his sound thinking. "Peter came in and he was polite and a very fresh face, and he had good ideas," says Terry O'Reilly, an oncology researcher at Novartis in Switzerland who collaborated with Lassota just after he joined the company. O'Reilly adds that the soft-spoken Lassota went about changing and improving his section at Novartis, but he did so with a gentle touch. "Right from the start, he was not a bull in the china shop."

The Challenges of Moving

Lassota's leadership led to his continued success at Novartis. At the end of 2001, Lassota helped the company establish a US oncology pharmacology unit and was nominated as the unit's executive director. On the heels of this accomplishment, however, Novartis decided to move Lassota's group from East Hanover, NJ, to Cambridge, Mass.

This placed Lassota in the difficult position of transitioning his team into a completely new working and living environment. "Oncology was working like a well-oiled machine," says Lassota, "but when the group moved to Cambridge, it was redirected towards more of the academic approach and more of the biotech rather than the big industry type of environment. The balance was somewhat distorted."

"I'm always trying to develop a warmer or closer relationship than a normal boss would develop with his employees. You have to build a little bit of trust. If people trust you, they will deliver better quality work."

Enticing his employees to move from their professional homes in New Jersey to the pricier and less familiar Cambridge also proved difficult. Lassota succeeded in bringing only two of his eight employees with him when he moved to Novartis' Cambridge facility in 2004, but this was likely not due to a lack of loyalty. Lassota prides himself on his ability to engender fidelity among his employees. "I'm always trying to develop a warmer or closer relationship than a normal boss would develop with his employees," he says. "You have to build a little bit of trust. If people trust you, they will deliver better quality work. My people were usually very, very loyal to me."

Lassota remembers his time at Novartis fondly and maintains many close relationships with his former colleagues, but the problems presented by the company's move to Cambridge were too much for the researcher at the time. "It was difficult to make the situation better," Lassota says. "What I lost was the ability to contribute to drug discovery and development in a meaningful way."

Landing at Caliper

Lassota began to seek opportunities elsewhere, and in the spring of 2006 he received a call from Caliper. Because of his Big Pharma experience, he was highly attractive to the small biotech. Roskey says he saw Lassota's experience as a way to kick-start Caliper's imaging biology ambitions. "We saw a way to expand our market penetration into Big Pharma through some of Peter's insights," he says about hiring Lassota.

Roskey's hunch was right. In the time since Lassota joined Caliper, Roskey says, revenues from the company's imaging biology section have grown by 20%-30%. He's "building an aspect of our business that didn't exist before," Roskey says.

Lassota is also the driving force behind Caliper's evolving role as a contract research organization (CRO), using his Alameda laboratory to support the biological side of drug discovery with corporate partners. He draws on his past experience working in academic, biotech, and Big Pharma labs, where he gained valuable insight into the types of companies that Caliper courts as clients. "I would like to build a strong CRO organization that would support entire drug discovery programs for pharma and biotechs," Lassota says.

Those who've worked with him say that Lassota has charted a successful course through the life sciences industry by using subtlety as his guiding principle. "He's not a brash, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, cowboy scientist," says Alexander Kamb, a Novartis collaborator who is now executive director of oncology at Amgen. "The key thing that Peter brings to the party is experience," Kamb continues. "Many [small biotechs] have very smart and energetic people, but what they really lack is a deep understanding of drug discovery and development. Caliper was extremely lucky to find someone like Peter."

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