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Johnson & Johnson research head aims to block, cure disease

March 3, 2019
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In this undated image provided by Johnson & Johnson Dr. William Hait poses for a photo. Hait, head of external research at health giant Johnson & Johnson, aims for a ‘World Without Disease’ with projects to prevent diseases, cure them early on. (Johnson & Johnson via AP)
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In this undated image provided by Johnson & Johnson Dr. William Hait poses for a photo. Hait, head of external research at health giant Johnson & Johnson, aims for a ‘World Without Disease’ with projects to prevent diseases, cure them early on. (Johnson & Johnson via AP)

Johnson & Johnson, the world’s biggest maker of health care products, wants to prevent people from getting sick — or at least stop diseases before they cause harm.

Its “World Without Disease” initiative and related projects aim to prevent or cure diseases such as lung and blood cancers and juvenile diabetes. They’re run by the New Brunswick, New Jersey, company’s head of external innovation, Dr. William Hait, who also oversees augmenting in-house research by licensing science and technology from other companies — or buying them.

Hait discussed this recently with The Associated Press. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What led you to start World Without Disease?

A: The origins began from my experience as a medical oncologist taking care of patients, then moving into the pharmaceutical business. Patients asked, “What could I have done to prevent this?” I wanted to see if there were disease processes that could be interrupted.

Q: What were the goals?

A: We wanted to focus on prevention, intercepting the disease-causing process, or diagnosing the disease so early that it could be cured.

Q: How do you decide which conditions to pursue?

A: It has to be a serious disease. You have to be able to define a population at very high risk, and the underlying biology. Then you have to have an intervention, say a drug, that you suspect would be not only effective, but safe, because remember these people don’t have a disease.

Q: The first project involves “smoldering myeloma.” This condition precedes a type of blood cancer, multiple myeloma, that your drug Darzalex treats. Why pursue this? How’s it going?

A: We had a precursor where patients are at very high risk (for a fatal cancer) and would be willing to be in a clinical trial, and we had a very good drug in Darzalex. It’s still in clinical trials, but so far, so good.

Q: Another project involves trying to prevent Type 1, or juvenile, diabetes. J&J and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation are partnering, and Finland’s government may participate. Why greenlight this?

A: You can predict with some certainty which children will go on to develop Type 1 diabetes by the antibodies in their blood. There are certain countries like Finland where the incidence of Type 1 diabetes is so high that children are actually tested. We had a drug that had the potential to be effective, Simponi. We think it’s going pretty well. In a year or so, we should get the data.

Q: J&J recently announced plans to buy Auris Health, which makes a flexible robotic bronchoscope that snakes deep into lungs to reach small nodules. How does that fit with your project to prevent or cure lung cancer?

A: It can help diagnose those lesions now, but ultimately our goal is to be able to treat those lesions. Lung cancer is fatal most of the time because it’s diagnosed too late. But if you can diagnose it early, it’s almost always curable.

Q: How do you decide when to give up on testing an experimental treatment?

A: We define the next decision point. It’s usually the outcome of an experiment. If the drug doesn’t exceed that target, then we stop testing it.

Q: What made this initiative right for J&J?

A: Not too many companies have the breadth to do this. We have devices, pharmaceuticals, consumer health. If we could get to a point where fewer people die of lung cancer or myeloma, that’s a huge reward. It will happen. I just can’t tell you when.

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Follow Linda A. Johnson at https://twitter.com/LindaJ_onPharma

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