A Flair for the Business of Medicine
In the mid-1960s, Henry Blair signed on as a research technician at the New England Enzyme Center, a first-in-the-nation facility housed at Tufts Medical School. Blair was a bright young man from Pittsburgh who had a knack for reinvention.
In 1981 he co-founded Genzyme Corp. out of an old clothing warehouse at 15 Kneeland St., adjacent to the medical school. “When we started I had a desk and a bunch of clothes racks and hangers,” Blair recalls.
Genzyme grew into one of the most successful biotechnology companies on the planet, employing some 10,000 people worldwide. The company’s signature product, Cerezyme, is a cure for Gaucher’s (go-SHAY) disease that costs patients up to $200,000 a year. Last spring, on the 30th anniversary of its founding, Genzyme was acquired by the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventis for $20.1 billion.
Blair, who left Genzyme in 1987 to found Dyax Corp. (among other biotech companies), has taken a step back from business life and divides his time between homes that he is remodeling in eastern Maryland and on Cape Cod. He is an emeritus member of the Board of Advisors to the medical school.
Have you always been entrepreneurial?
Yes. I started a few businesses in my youth. They were all when I was at Tufts. One involved raising tropical fish—that’s how I learned marketing. I had some very exotic tropical fish, which I was good at breeding. I thought I could do that and make some money. Turned out the world market for these fish was about two pairs a year (laughs). I ended up with thousands of them.
I started another company at the New England Enzyme Center called the Enzyme Center Inc., with my boss Stanley Charm [professor of biochemistry emeritus]. This was with the full knowledge of the medical school and the dean. We actually took some of the enzymes we were producing and sold them to companies making diagnostic kits. I ran that, and that was successful.
You must have been good at teaching yourself what you needed to know.
That’s essentially true. The reason I never graduated from college is I never got through the requirements—for a language, and everything else. All I wanted to do was study science, and that was not the way to get a degree back in those days. But I was taking courses as I worked, some at Tufts, some at BU, Harvard and UMass.
Did you tinker with chemistry sets as a kid?
Absolutely. I had a great science teacher in prep school from whom I took chemistry, biology and physics. He really instilled in me an interest in science, and biology in particular.
Tell me about Gaucher’s disease.
Children with this disorder have a missing or dysfunctional gene, so they cannot produce the enzyme that’s necessary to break down waste products from the degradation of old red blood cells. Because this enzyme is missing, a lipid builds up in certain cells in the liver and elsewhere in the body. It is very debilitating. These children have to have their spleen out, their bones are very brittle, they have very low energy, and ultimately, they pass away.
What we did was produce the missing enzyme and give it back to the patient. By a little manipulation and a lot of luck, it was actually picked up by the proper cell type in the body. It was very gratifying to see that happen. I remember our first patient could barely walk up and down the hall at NIH [where Blair was then conducting his research]. I believe he went on to be on the Duke University track team, get married and live a perfectly normal life.
How do you respond to criticisms of the orphan drug strategy, where a company like Genzyme charges an extremely high price for its life-saving solutions?
For a number of the products that do come out that are highly priced, they seem exorbitant, but what this money has allowed a company like Genzyme to do over and over again is to create additional drugs for untreatable diseases—to extend the benefit, in other words.
You’ve launched a number of companies. Would you say you’re a restless person?
I think my attention span is fairly short. But I’ve been involved with Dyax for over 20 years now, and I stayed on the board of Genzyme until about four years ago.
Do you miss bench work at all?
Sometimes, but I like to cook and keep experimenting that way.
So you’re still tinkering.
Yes, and I’m thinking of starting another company.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Tufts Medicine magazine.
Bruce Morgan can be reached at email@example.com.