Michael Hayden: In The Genes

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When Michael Hayden was a doctor at Children’s Hospital Boston, a teaching arm of Harvard Medical School, he did the unthinkable: he left – for a position at UBC.

“When I told people in Boston and Harvard, they thought I was crazy. Some suggested I see a psychiatrist. They said I was committing academic suicide – I’d lost it.”

But going his own way has paid off. Not only has Hayden found a rewarding career at UBC, he has found an equally gratifying sideline as a life sciences entrepreneur, launching three biotech startups since his arrival. Last year the latest of his startups, Victoria-based Aspreva Pharmaceuticals Corp., hit a home run when it was sold to Swiss pharmaceutical giant Galencia Holding AG for nearly $1 billion US. In just six years, the biotech’s value had grown a thousandfold from an initial million-dollar seed investment. Not only that, but Aspreva fulfilled a lifelong personal ambition of Hayden’s to find treatments for patients with rare diseases who are often brushed aside by the pharmaceutical ­industry.

BCBusiness caught up with Hayden at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics, a Vancouver-based research institute that he co-founded and where he serves as director. Hayden, who multi-tasks as effortlessly as most people breathe, is also a genetics professor at UBC, a Canada Research Chair in Human Genetics and Molecular Medicine, a senior scientist at the Child & Family Research Institute, the chief scientific officer for Xenon Pharmaceuticals Inc. and chief medical advisor for Aspreva.

Our interview takes place in a windowless boardroom that gives away little about the organization or its director. A few formulas written on a whiteboard are the only clue that anything scientific transpires here. Hayden slips into a chair, quietly introducing himself. “Michael Hayden,” he says.

Dressed casually in black from head to toe, he seems more like an academic than a businessman. He’s slim, with cropped hair, and he looks at you intently while he speaks – often at breakneck speed – as though he has a lot to say and not much time to say it. Hayden’s South African accent is still apparent, and South Africa is the first thing we talk about.

Born in 1951, Hayden grew up poor in Cape Town. His parents divorced when he was eight, and he lived with his mother. By South African standards, this was unconventional. So was the fact that his mother had no servants and never drove a car, preferring instead to scoot around on her Vespa. She was a courageous woman who invited blacks into her home – an illegal act at the time that could have landed her in jail. “I learned very quickly to be my own focus, not to worry about being different,” Hayden explains.

Hayden originally planned on becoming a lawyer but thought better of it. “Very quickly I realized that as a lawyer my role was to uphold the law, not to change it, and that wasn’t something I was very excited about,” he explains. Opting instead for medical school at the University of Cape Town, he graduated in 1975. Then, inspired by Peter Beighton, a “crazy professor” of his, he stayed on to take a second degree: a PhD in genetics.

Hayden often accompanied Beighton on his frequent trips to the countryside. On some of these trips, he saw young children dying because increased bone density in their skulls was putting pressure on their brains. “You had to drill a hole into the skull of a young child to save a life,” Hayden recalls. “Often you didn’t get there in time.” The condition was rare, found in just 50 or 60 families in South Africa, but it gave Hayden an idea that could potentially help many more. He thought that if he knew what was going on with these children, he might be able to treat people with the opposite, more widespread disorder: low bone density, or osteoporosis. It was a powerful insight that Hayden would exploit many years later: in genetics, uncommon cases are often the key to understanding the common ones.


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