Sunday, June 1, 2008

Best. Breakfast. Ever.

Sometimes life just hands you a little gift. Out of the blue, for no apparent reason. This morning was one of those times. (Out of respect for privacy, I've changed the names - everything else is just as it happened).

About 11am, and I had gone out in search of breakfast. I ended up in a little courtyard cafe near the center, and decided to risk the "hot cakes" with my coffee. Passing the time alternating between doing my homework for tomorrow's class and watching the world go by. At one of the other tables in the cafe, there were what appeared to be two elderly U.S. couples - with all the appearance of retired academics. Which is nothing unusual here in Guanajuato - at a guess, at least a quarter of the audience at the symphony on Friday night had been retired Americans. What was unusual about these folks is the way they were staring at me. Which bordered on being a little rude, to tell the truth.

At this point, I should explain something about my wardrobe. When you work at a company like Genentech for as long as I did (16 years), you end up with a lot of T-shirts. At times it seemed as if every company milestone, every new product launch, was celebrated with free T-shirts for all employees. Sometimes you ended up with T-shirts for projects you had barely worked on. Anyway, as luck would have it, this morning I was wearing one of my Lucentis T-shirts. Lucentis was a product I had done quite a bit of work on, and remains one of my proudest Genentech memories.

In brief, Lucentis is a drug that was developed to fight AMD (age-related macular degeneration), the leading cause of blindness in the elderly, and a condition against which there had previously been few effective treatments. Left untreated, AMD leads to a gradual, inexorable loss of central vision, with losses of 4 to 5 lines on an eye chart within 2 years being typical. Often it strikes otherwise healthy, active people and the effect on the quality of life can be devastating. As it turned out, Lucentis, which was approved for use in the U.S. before I left Genentech, is spectacularly effective in treating the disease. Its particular mechanism of action causes it not only to slow the loss of vision associated with the disease, but in many cases results in subjects regaining previously lost vision, often after only a single treatment (its major drawback is that it is given by intraocular injection, so there's a thqueamishness factor, but given the terrific effectiveness, this didn't seem to bother patients all that much).

Anyway, it's rare to get the chance to work on an experimental drug whose eventual results turn out to be as good as those for Lucentis, so I've always had fond memories of that particular project. But, back to this morning. What was causing my neighbors in the cafe to stare at me so oddly? You've guessed - it was the Lucentis T-shirt. Eventually, one of the two women approached and asked if I worked for Genentech. Upon learning that I had, pointing at my T-shirt, she asked if I had worked on Lucentis. When I said I had, she just burst into tears and hugged me. By now, I was a little teared up myself. She dragged me over to their table, saying all the time "You saved Frank's life. Mine too."

After introductions all around, it turned out that Frank, her husband, had developed wet AMD (the aggressive form of the disease) several years earlier, had been losing vision rapidly, when his ophthalmologist suggested enrolling him in one of the ongoing clinical trials for Lucentis, which was still an experimental therapy at that point. In his particular case, results had been immediate and striking, and he had been able to maintain vision with just a couple of maintenance shots since the trial had ended a couple of years ago.

It's a little embarrassing, truth be told, to be on the spot, soaking up all the credit for an effort you knew actually involved hundreds, if not thousands, of other employees. But I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel good. It feels awesome. I've been roaming the streets of Guanajuato since then, with a huge grin on my face, humming to myself in a way that is making people look at me funny.

I didn't get to pay for my pancakes this morning. We chatted for a long time over breakfast, and I just kept thinking to myself - "what a gift". It's the kind of experience that life rewards you with occasionally when you work for a company like Genentech. I remember, on my first sabbatical, when I was travelling in Europe, this Dutch woman I'd never seen before in my life came up to me on a train in Germany, threw her arms around me and thanked me for saving her father's life (he had been treated with tPA during a heart attack). But I just wasn't particularly expecting anything unusual when I went out to breakfast this morning. Which made it all the more sweet, somehow.

This post is dedicated to all my former colleagues at Genentech, and to those on the Lucentis team in particular.

(And yes, I'm sorry, but it goes well beyond my current blogging skills to put that little trademark sign by Lucentis)


Anonymous said...

Mama turns 80 this week and says thank you everyday for Lucentis! Her job as a librarian means so much to her, not to mention, well, vision! You'll see her at the wedding (13 days and counting)

Abrazos y gracias tambien,

jessica said...

wow, David, I thought I was going to be reading about excellent huevos rancheros y cafe con leche, but no...what a story! that is great.

Robert said...

Hi David,
I hope i have as much going on when I retire. Nice to know about your BLOG, learned about it on the front page of gwiz this morning!! So you achieved another first... statistically speaking this is an amazing streak :)
Sure do miss your help with statistics though....

Bob Hamilton

Anonymous said...

I love you guys! saving the world one person at a time :)

Anonymous said...

Working here at Genentech, it's hearing stories like this one that inspire me to never lose sight of the true meaning for working through the challenges that come with developing innovative therapies...Btw, if you haven't already enrolled, I heard Academia Falcon is a good school to learn Spanish...Good Luck!

Peter said...

Hola David,

It's nice to hear that you continue to charm the locals. Your stories of encounters with those helped directly or indirectly by Genentech science are inspiring, though it does cause me to wonder why I didn't have a similar experience or two on my recent sabbatical. I guess I'm just not as huggable.

Peter Compton

Pat Y. said...


What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it.


Theresa R said...

Hola David! GNE couldn't ask for a better ambassador.

Doug said...

Hi David,

As an employee at GNE, it was a pleasure to read your blog. Thanks for sharing such a warm and wonderful story.

FYI - to add the '®' symbol, use Alt+0174 (using the number pad) :)

Brian Crawford said...

Hi David,

Great post. I, too, was heavily involved in Lucentis and its approval was one my proudest moments. And like you, I recently left Genentech to pursue another path.

P.S. I loved "A Thousand Splendid Subs" on your recent post. Genius.

Brian Crawford

Maria Tom said...

Oh hey, they posted a link to your blog on gWiz so don't be surprised if you get flooded. :p I do find it inspirational to read your story. Sitting here at work, everyone around you is a Genentech employee. In the Bay Area, if the person's worked in biotech, chances are they've worked at Genentech at one point or another. It's something you take for granted after a while.

Your story really is a good reminder that we do more than put out drugs for stockholders our do our job because we're paid to. It makes me think back to someone I met in group therapy for depression, and hearing her talk about how scary and devastating it is to slowly go blind. At that point, she could only see light and was scared about the day when she'd lose the ability to see even that. Lucentis probably isn't the drug for her because her sight loss was due to a stroke, but I think her sentiments must be very similar.

Thanks for cheering up my day and week. Go forth and show them what Genentechers are made of!

Anonymous said...

¡Que rico desayuno!

¿Y como está progresando con el español?

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

You'll be happy to know that, accompanying this story on gWiz, they posted your photo from, apparently, your hire date during the late Mesozoic era.

Still, any David Giltinan, however misrepresentative, is far better than no David Giltinan at all.

When's lunch?

- Bill Y.

Linda said...

Hey David,
Your story about meeting the Lucentis patient made my week. I You always were a great ambassador for Genentech.

One of the things that I miss a lot is the tough chanllenge quizes. There are lots of challenges here...but none as tought as those!

Regarding the picture that was posed on gWiz...I thought it was the travel and time off that made you look so fresh and young!

My best,

rita said...

I found your blog by accident. I want to thank you for your participation in the development of Lucentis. It's saving my sight. At age 53, I was diagnosed with wet macular degeneration. Since then (two years) I've had 6 injections of Lucentis, and it's totally cleared up the two new episodes of leakage and has even, maybe, fingers crossed, cleared up a little of the original blindness.

My retinologist tells me that I'll have to continue to have injections for the rest of my life, probably every 3-9 months. The little bit of apprehension and discomfort is well worth the results! (Xanax helps.)

Again, thank you. Lucentis was approved just before I needed it, and I can't begin to tell you how grateful I am that it's available.

Marie Post

gaelstat said...

I just wanted to say thanks for all the comments I've received on this entry, and for the e-mail messages people have sent. I'm still on the road (visiting my sister in Canada), after Katie's wedding last weekend, but as soon as I get back to San Francisco, I will try to contact people individually, as far as possible.