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Reynders Takes the CIO Reins at J&J R&D

He lists translational science and integration among the key challenges in his new position.

Dec. 17, 2007 | Last summer, John Reynders became CIO for Johnson & Johnson's Life Sciences Division (succeeding John Barbano, who is now managing J&J's medical devices and diagnostics group). Reynders' rapid ascent in life sciences started in 2001 when he joined Celera as VP of Informatics. Celera was sitting on roughly 100 terabytes of genome data, and Reynders was suddenly responsible for all supercomputing capabilities, discovery software engineering, and enterprise system infrastructure. (See Scaling Celera's Mountain of Data, Bio-IT World, April 2002.) Not that he was likely to be intimidated. Reynders joined Celera from Los Alamos National Laboratory where he'd been director of the Advanced Computing Laboratory. He earned his Ph.D. in applied and computational mathematics from Princeton University.

Celera's fortunes, of course, took a downward turn but Reynders' trajectory did not. In 2004, he moved to Lilly Research Laboratories as information officer, discovery and development informatics. There, he encountered a vastly greater diversity of informatics tools, and he now says one of his most satisfying achievements was leading the effort to build a much more integrated informatics environment at Lilly. Reynders, who will deliver the opening keynote at the 2008 Bio-IT World Conference & Expo in Boston, recently spoke with Bio-IT World editor-in-chief Kevin Davies and executive editor John Russell about his new role and plans at Johnson & Johnson.

BITW: Tell us how the J&J opportunity came about?
As with most things, it started with a phone call. I knew of J&J from afar, and was quite happy at Lilly and plugging away on the programs there. But when the opportunity presented itself, being able to look at not just the pharmaceutical perspective but at pharmaceuticals in the context of devices, in the context of diagnostics, and the role of technology at that intersection, that was quite exciting and intriguing.

You spent three years at Lilly - what do you consider your most gratifying accomplishments there?
There were many things such as the people and the company. If I were to point to a programmatic activity, I'd say it was the deployment of an integrated informatics program. This really involved how you think about [the role of] informatics across the pipeline and across multiple disciplines... Informatics as a discipline really shouldn't be bioinformatics by itself, cheminformatics by itself, or medical informatics by itself, but really our challenge is more the connection between these domains.

Biomarkers, for example, are getting to be very challenging. Gone are the days of, here's an SNP and here's a molecular diagnostic and off we go. It's really now a matter of finding signals in a combination of imaging data, expression data, and SNP data. So deploying that program and getting it underway at Lilly and seeing it actually come to life and impacting the pipeline is probably the thing of which I was most proud.

What is the scope of the IT group you've inherited at J&J and some of the challenges you'll face?
It's quite a global organization. J&J Pharmaceuticals is structured into three franchises. One focused on biotechnology, which is large molecules and biologics with a strong oncology focus, as well as inflammation. Then there's the CNS/IM focus, which is central nervous system and internal medicine (cardiovascular, arthrosclerosis, and endocrine) and a strong virology franchise - infectious diseases, HIV, hepatitis C. My responsibilities are the IT and informatics across these three organizations, not the central IT. We have a central organization that does the data center, the networks, the PDAs, security, things like that.

My challenge - and the opportunity - is how you make sure you're bridging between the science and technology. I remember giving a keynote at your first Bridging IT and Discovery conference (see Bridges and Boundaries, Bio-IT World, November 2005). I could whip out that deck and go through the same list: how you blend the community, how you have common goals, how do you form teams that can do everything from the science to the technology and are agile in terms of moving across these domains, how you move decision making close to the projects...

I was delighted to see there were a lot of pieces in place when I arrived here, so I can focus on the value creation part sooner. I think the extra challenges are there's a broad set of therapeutic areas, each of which has nuances. You'll have a lot of imaging, for example, in some therapeutic areas, you'll have more gene expression and proteomics in others. How do you find connections between these therapeutic areas?

Finally, J&J is a very distributed organization, so that's exciting. It's almost like going from polar opposites, where Lilly is probably one of the more centralized pharmaceutical companies you could find, and J&J would certainly be one of the more distributed pharmaceutical companies. So, it's navigating in this culture of innovation spread into many centers. There's also being part of a larger company where we can reach out from pharma into diagnostics, devices, and consumer.

How is this position different from your role at Lilly?
My role at Lilly was focused more in discovery and CMC (chemistry, manufacturing, and controls), and building a biomedical informatics capability to support translational science in partnership with the clinical information officer at Lilly, whereas here, my accountability spans the whole pipeline. I find that exciting because a lot of the future in terms of informatics is going to be in translational science, going from bench to bedside and back to bench, but also health outcomes. How do you go from the clinic out into the real world and from the real world back into the clinic, and frankly, back into discovery? So, that entire closed loop between health surveillance and health outcome into the clinic and into discovery is what's different.

In terms of roles here, there are a few different CIO titles. My scope of responsibilities is all of IT for pharma R&D. I have, for example, a colleague who is responsible for all of operations at the supply chain or manufacturing. I have another colleague who's responsible for all of commercial operations and the three of us report up to a single CIO for all of pharmaceuticals.

What will you do differently at J&J?
I'll be looking more opportunistically. The value creation opportunity at J&J is finding connections between entities, so for example, reaching out into Veridex or Virco [Labs], which are [J&J-owned] diagnostic companies and seeing where we might find new products. In other [companies], I think it's more, here's the portfolio, execute the portfolio, reprioritize, put in new projects, and off we go. That's a critical part of how the work is going to be done hertze. But it's certainly the case that J&J being very distributed, there's more energy that I think needs to be spent in finding the value creating opportunities between the operating businesses and between the different sectors here: pharmaceuticals, medical devices and diagnostics, [and] consumer.

One thing I find that's very intriguing is J&J is more of a virtual company. I can do quite a bit virtually and that makes it easier to lead and manage... The meetings are more done by communication, by email or by teleconference. For me personally, I am able to move more quickly with coordination so distributed and asynchronous.

Have you thought about a near term strategy and specific goals?
The main thing I'm focused on now is getting my hands around the various biomarker programs we have. Again, if we're going to talk translational science and health outcomes, it really boils down to what are the biomarkers - be it for pharmacodynamics, be it for translational science, be it for patient stratification, be it identifying signals out of the population in terms of health outcome. All of that is materialized in a biomarker. This in turn drives an informatics strategy; what do we need to do in terms of imaging, pharmacogenomics, metabonomics, all the way from discovery to clinic. A lot of my early focus is understanding the biomarker platforms, kind of doing an inventory, understanding the scientific capabilities, and that'll in turn drive my informatics strategy.

Are there major projects either you're inheriting or considering starting?
It's a little early for that. I'm 60 days in, so I'm still in data gathering mode, but if I were to give you a general view, it's going to be something that looks like how do we integrate? Integration is going to be a theme I'm going to be saying again and again. How do we integrate across the pipeline and across platforms?

What's your view on the right mix of internally developed versus commercial tools?
I'm a big fan of frameworks because of what they allow you to do. If you have an SOA and frameworks, it allows you to be targeted in what your components are and to decide which components are commodities that you just want to buy versus which are strategic that you want to build. So, my approach with third party vendors and partners is [to ask] how can we work together to build systems? How can we take pieces and parts of what we do and combine it?

I'm not a fan of the large monolithic vendor solution. I think [that's] the same thing a lot of my CIO colleagues in other places are saying. I remember actually sitting in a Bio-IT World Conference panel with colleagues from Merck and Pfizer saying the same thing - gone are the days of companies buying large standalone third-party platforms. So, if I need to be integrating my data, integrating my information, integrating my algorithms, the partners I'm going to be working with are those that can work in an integrated environment.

Are there cultural areas where you think J&J can improve?
What's helped make this transition smooth is that I find a lot of cultural similarities between Lilly and J&J. They're both companies that focus upon integrity, excellence, and the people. If I look at J&J, its credo is something that I found very compelling in terms of the kind of environment I want to work in and build high-performance teams that deliver excellence. The culture is collaborative, so it is possible to bridge across the science and technology. I see many examples of that working. There are areas where I'll need to build those bridges that haven't been built yet, but the culture of J&J was something that was a big attractor to me in terms of coming here.

Is J&J more focused on developing successful drugs through the pipeline, or vetting the candidates you have so they fail sooner to save money?
As with most any other pharma, no one's going to say no to a blockbuster, but we are realizing that patient populations are different. Again, getting back to biomarkers, it's about how do you find the right patient for the right drug, the right dose, the right time; all that targeting. At the end of the day, the bars are going up across the industry in terms of what the patients expect in terms of the investment they make in pharmaceuticals. So we want to have a lot of clarity around the health outcomes that are being delivered, not just in a general sense, but the heath outcomes to specific patient population.

Is the concept of translational medicine working, or are there still challenges in getting clinical researchers to communicate with discovery teams?
There are a couple of challenges with translation. First, translation is two-way. Sometimes the mistake is made that it is one-way; that you find a way to have an improved animal model or an improved in vivo/in vitro set of models that can help you with a pharmacodynamic endpoint that brings things into the clinic. But what tends to be missing in translation is how you go back from the clinical result to help improve the pharmacodynamic endpoint or the biomarker in the first place. So, I think the general challenge in translational sciences is how do we have it not be a diode on the pipeline where it only goes one-way.

You mentioned that J&J has a lot of subsidiaries in the medical devices and diagnostics field. What about that appeals to you?
I really think the future is going to be how you target drugs, how you get the right drug to the right patient. What is exciting about J&J is the ability to converge all these technologies. It's not like a pharmaceutical company that would then have to go partner with a diagnostic company and ask the diagnostic company why [something works].

Information is the back plane that makes that happen. How do you understand the patient population, how do you understand the nature of the composite biomarker, how do you instantiate that into a diagnostic? Working with different parts of J&J to bring targeted therapy, personalized medicine to life - that's probably what I found most exciting in this opportunity. 

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