The veteran researcher | John Thomson

Biotech ‘gunslingers’ aim for breakthroughs

By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / April 24, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — When self-described “protein jock’’ John A. Thomson joined Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. in 1989, the start-up was a place where science was king and young protein-biochemistry researchers like himself felt like “gunslingers.’’

The Australian-born Thomson was Vertex employee number three. He followed founder Joshua Boger to Cambridgeport from drug maker Merck & Co. because he was captivated by Boger’s promise of transformative medicine — turning smart scientists loose to tackle the tough problems and discover breakthrough therapies.

“He just struck a chord that matched what I was looking for,’’ said Thomson, now 53 and a 22-year Vertex veteran. “His vision for the future and impatience with the present is where I wanted to be.’’

But patience, while in limited supply in the biotechnology business, is ultimately a necessity. More than two decades later, Vertex is finally on the verge of winning Food and Drug Administration approval for the first drug it’s developed — a potential blockbuster treatment for the viral disease hepatitis C.

Thomson headed the antivirals research that led to the discovery of the drug, called telaprevir. He has since moved on to become vice president for strategic research and development networks, working to boost the speed and efficiency of Vertex’s research process and forge research alliances with other biopharmaceutical firms.

From the vantage point of 2011, Thomson sees Vertex as a larger company that still values the research DNA from its beginnings. “As you grow, you lose the feeling of being a little club,’’ he said.

“You don’t know everyone in the organization, and you lose some of that devil-may-care attitude. But we’ve retained the ideology where innovation is meaningful.’’

Thomson was a young man in a hurry when he came to Vertex. Working in the physics department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1980s, he was recruited to teach biochemistry at the University of Wyoming.

Eighteen months later, he received a job offer from Boger at Merck. But before his boots touched the ground at the drug giant’s New Jersey labs, he learned Boger was leaving to launch Vertex.

“I said, ‘I hear you’re starting a company,’ ’’ Thomson recalled telling Boger. ‘Is it all theoretical, or do you need some scientists?’ ’’

Boger needed scientists, so Thomson signed on. The early Vertex was a “relaxed, informal environment’’ where everyone spoke science and ran experiments into the wee hours of the morning, he said, and “even the nonscientists did a pretty good job of impersonating’’ scientists.

“Everybody knew how to put a tie on,’’ Thomson said, but did so only when meeting prospective research partners — or people with money to invest.

Vertex was at the forefront of the biotech revolution, using sophisticated chemistry and a structure-based drug design approach to identify compounds that could become new drugs. Under that approach, it used advanced computer programs to search for new treatments. With funding scarce, company scientists were forced to be inventive. Meantime, executives scrambled to find a business model that would bring in enough money to sustain the science.

Today the company has grown up, and Thomson feels some satisfaction at having been aboard for the whole journey. “We’re a healthy adolescent pharmaceutical company in our prime,’’ he said.