Roche hires diagnostics champion to lead Ventana Medical Systems

August 15, 2011

By hammersmith

Beginning in September, one of the nation’s strongest advocates for the adoption of personalized medicine will be running one of the cornerstones of Arizona’s bioscience industry. Roche Group has hired veteran diagnostics executive Mara Aspinall as the new president of Oro Valley-based Ventana Medical Systems Inc., a global leader in tissue-based cancer diagnostics.

Aspinall comes to Ventana from On-Q-ity Inc., a Boston-based cancer-diagnostics startup that she founded after several years as president of Genzyme Genetics. An outspoken proponent of reforming educational and regulatory practices to encourage the implementation of personalized medicine, Aspinall serves on the federal Secretary of Health and Human Services’ Advisory Commission on Genetics, Health and Society, and on the board of the Personalized Medicine Coalition. Recently, she has argued for creation of a center at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that specifically focuses on the regulation of diagnostic tools.

At Ventana, Aspinall succeeds Hany Massarany, who left Ventana in April to reunite with another Ventana veteran, Christopher Gleeson, at San Diego-based GenMark Diagnostics Inc. In its announcement of Aspinall’s appointment, Roche highlighted her record of improving the competitiveness of  Genzyme Genetics and the Genzyme Corp. division she previously led, GenzymePharmaceuticals.

“Mara brings a track record of success at Genzyme and a wealth of diagnostics-industry experience to this important role,” said Daniel O’Day, chief operating officer of Roche Diagnostics. “In line with Ventana’s mission to improve the lives of all patients afflicted with cancer, she will be working closely across Roche divisions and with our business partners with a focus on enabling our customers to deliver the absolute highest standards of patient care and business performance available globally.”

Although Aspinall’s training is in business management rather than research or clinical practice, she has said that interaction with patients defines her approach to business.

“If you do the right thing for patients, somehow most everything else falls in line,” Aspinall said last year in Mass High Tech. “I’ve done this all through my career. We’ve always had patients come in and talk about their challenges, talk about what they’d like to see changed.”

Aspinall has also involved herself in training clinicians, serving as a lecturer in health-care policy at Harvard Medical School and using a sabbatical from Genzyme in 2008 to work with researchers at Harvard on integrating personalized medicine into medical education and clinical and research practice. Her policy advocacy has aimed at making the U.S. health-care system less oriented toward treating disease with a procedure-reliant, one-size-fits-all approach.

“The physicians that are paid the most–and maybe not surprising–are physicians that are intensive in their use of procedures, and the physicians that are focused on diagnosis and diagnostics are paid the least,” Aspinall noted in an address at the Personalized Medicine World Conference in January. “We need to understand this and rewrite the system.”

One way to help change current practice, she suggested in her address, is reform at the FDA. “The increasingly complex nature of molecular diagnostics, requires new expertise and a new regulatory focus,” Aspinall and venture capitalist Brook Byers wrote in the Boston Globe in April. “To fill this essential need, we propose the creation of a dedicated FDA Center for Advanced Diagnostics Evaluation and Research staffed with molecular-diagnostics experts from all the relevant fields, including genetics, bioengineering, and biostatistics.”

Improving the regulatory-approval process for molecular diagnostics is essential if promising targeted therapies are to successfully reach the marketplace, Aspinall and Byers wrote. “A number of regulatory and reimbursement policies must be changed. For one thing, both payers and physicians need and deserve to have confidence that the advanced diagnostic methods being used are reliable and accurate. As it stands today, diagnostics are regulated by a variety of state and federal agencies, but there are, as yet, no clear policies in place for the approval of new molecular diagnostics.”

Should those reforms be successfully implemented, Aspinall asserted in her Personalized Medicine World Conference talk, the future will belong to the integration of many kinds of diagnostic tools, enabling the appropriate response to individual patients’ disease.

“It’s about precision testing,” she said. “More than personalized, it’s getting much more specific information, with multiple sample types. Circulating tumor cells [the focus of On-Q-ity’s cancer-diagnostics development] are going to play a key role, but also gene sequencing, and imaging. I think there will be very few low-hanging fruit, with an individual gene, or an individual protein. What it’s really going to be about is algorithms, putting multiple technologies together.”

In Arizona, Aspinall will encounter a significant core of scientific leaders who share her commitment to implementing personalized medicine. For instance, Ventana is already engaged in collaborative research on biomarker standards with the Critical Path Institute, the International Genomics Consortium, and the Biodesign Institute at ASU.

For more information:

Roche Appoints Mara G. Aspinall President of Ventana Medical Systems Inc.,” Roche Group news release, 08/01/2011

Mara Aspinall address, Personalized Medicine World Conference, 01/18/2011

On-target treatment,” Boston Globe, ” 04/18/2011

Veteran and first-time biotech CEOs find commonalities,” Mass High Tech, 06/23/2010

Realizing the Promise of Personalized Medicine,” Harvard Business Review, 10/2007