Bob Schroff joined a Seattle biotech company in 1984 as a young scientist with a dream to revolutionize cancer therapy. But after six years...

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Bob Schroff joined a Seattle biotech company in 1984 as a young scientist with a dream to revolutionize cancer therapy. But after six years at NeoRx creating antibodies to destroy cancer cells, he decided he was “tired of beating my head against a wall,” Schroff said.

He switched to a more promising cardiovascular project at NeoRx and spent six years on that, only to see the research run out of money.

That was enough. Schroff, who lives in Edmonds, now does some biotech consulting from home, but he also repairs boats.

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“It ticks you off,” Schroff said about seeing his research projects die. “You begin to have serious doubts. You say to yourself, ‘Maybe I should chuck this and go buy a gas station.’ “
With a recent run of disappointing clinical trials by local companies, hundreds of other biotech workers are coping with failure in their own ways.

Everyone in the industry knows the odds of success are slim. Only one in 10 drugs enticing enough to enter human tests ever advances to the market.

That doesn’t make failing easier to handle.

“To be told the last seven or so years of your life really haven’t been productive — that is not a good thing to be told,” said Bruce Montgomery, chief executive of Seattle-based Corus Pharma.

Just since December, area biotechs have abandoned several costly and ambitious research programs. Targeted Genetics gave up after 15 years of laboring toward a cure for cystic fibrosis. Icos scrapped its tests of a drug against emphysema and chronic bronchitis after four years. Corixa dropped a lymphoma drug that was 15 years in the making.

When a high-profile project crashes, Montgomery said, workers go through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Sometimes the loss is mourned with a “wake” at a local pub.

What comes next depends on the individual. When South San Francisco-based Genentech wanted to cancel its AIDS-vaccine program, internationally known researcher Don Francis insisted the project just needed more work and resources. He spun it out as an independent company, VaxGen. More than $150 million later, the vaccine failed again.

Most researchers don’t have the option of just stubbornly plowing ahead.

Montgomery said he has seen people re-energized from a new project, as long as their job isn’t in jeopardy. Alternatively, workers will bolt to another company while they second-guess management for using the wrong dose or targeting the wrong patient population.

Others leave the business altogether, their purpose in life shaken. Former biotech workers around Seattle are now selling real estate or motorcycles, or teaching high-school science. But most researchers tend to be resilient in defeat. Failure is familiar turf for many young scientists, who on their way to graduate degrees have usually run multiple experiments that don’t succeed.

At Pathogenesis, a Seattle biotech company that successfully developed a cystic-fibrosis drug in the 1990s, employees were skeptical all along, said Montgomery, who ran its R&D. Many did not believe in the drug until the Food and Drug Administration approved it, he said.

Schroff said he got some satisfaction from incremental achievements, like making a discovery, having it published in a peer-reviewed journal and steering it through trials with some glimmers of effectiveness. If he’d been an academic scientist, those accomplishments would have been sufficient to win raises, promotions and grant funding.

But in the biotech industry, where the ultimate goal is to create a product that benefits human health and generates revenue, those interim steps don’t matter as much.

“Do I feel it was a waste? Yes, to an extent,” Schroff said. “Did I do my best and walk away with my head held high? Yes.”

Stewart Lyman, a Seattle-based biotech consultant, said that when he was director of research collaborations at Immunex, he tacked famous quotes on his door to keep a balanced perspective.

One from abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass read, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” From the author Elbert Hubbard: “Do not take life too seriously; you will never get out of it alive.”

Executives face a challenge in keeping workers motivated after a high-profile bust, Lyman said. At Immunex, he said, management’s attitude was, “We tried something, it didn’t work, [but] tomorrow is another day.”

So long as the company had other viable programs to fall back on and didn’t need to slash jobs, the workers bounced back, Lyman said.

Immunex researchers had to refocus after its drug Enbrel failed in its first big trial as a sepsis treatment. But when the drug got a second chance, in rheumatoid arthritis, it succeeded, and the company thrived.

The less-graceful style, Lyman said, is to make excuses, blame others or try to spin negative results into a positive. Sometimes management will say, “The FDA didn’t understand it” or “We just didn’t have enough resources” or “The clinical people screwed up.”

If management ducks the question of layoffs, morale plummets even more. Résumés, especially for talented workers, will go out the next day, Lyman said.

But if management handles the failure skillfully and can salvage something from the research, lessons can be learned that enable committed scientists to come closer to success the next time around.

“When you’re trying to do something extraordinarily hard, people fail all the time,” Lyman said. “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying to push the frontiers of knowledge.”

Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or ltimmerman@seattletimes.com