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Alumni Profile

Christopher McLeod, SM ’79

Christopher McLeod, SM ’79

Retired President & CEO, 454 Life Sciences

  • In 2005, 454 Life Sciences commercialized a revolutionary, high-throughput technology for sequencing DNA and was awarded The Wall Street Journal’s Gold Medal for Innovation in the biotech-medical category.
  • Roche acquired 454 Life Sciences in March 2007.
  • The technology developed by 454 Life Sciences is being used to make personalized health care a reality.

Retirement means different things for different people, and for Christopher McLeod, SM ’79, stepping away from six years as president and CEO of 454 Life Sciences will hardly close the door on a fascinating career.

“When you are head of the organization in the way I approach it, it is an all-consuming passion,” said McLeod, whose relationship with the company began with its founding more than 11 years ago. “I want to be able to step back and invest and advise earlier-stage companies. It’s time to share my advice, but not necessarily be the one on the firing line. I’ve always been most excited with the early-stage companies, and I like to take a concept and turn it into a business.”

Focused on “high-throughput DNA sequencing,” the work of 454 Life Sciences has simplified the process of reading genetic code, paving the way for medical and pharmaceutical breakthroughs. In addition, the technology has led to more than 1,000 peer-reviewed research publications in several areas of study, including drug development, cancer and infectious diseases, immunogenetics, environmental ecology, and agriculture, to name a few.

As McLeod explained, the rapid decline in the cost of defining the sequence of DNA comes with its own challenges, as the generation of genetic information is currently outpacing the ability to analyze it.

“So the question is, how do we analyze this data and turn it into practical applications?” said McLeod. “That’s where the data management challenges are, to take this information and use it to understand, for example, why do only some people respond to certain drugs? Understanding what in the genetic code of a person contributes to their disease can lead to personalized health care. This is why 454 fits in so well with Roche, one of the world’s largest therapeutic and diagnostic entities.”

McLeod has already seen significant breakthroughs and sees more to come—in the development of alternative biofuels, in selecting traits and enhancing yields in agriculture, and in fighting food-borne pathogens—with the acknowledgment that the full implications of this technology will likely play out more slowly than some hope.

“When the first reference human genome was completed 10 years ago, people thought it would quickly lead to huge breakthroughs and new drugs, and yet it still takes just as long to develop a new drug and get it approved,” said McLeod. “People’s expectations run ahead of themselves. We knew the ability to take an inexpensive look at genetic code would lead to results … but it takes time. Just because you know the code doesn’t mean you know what the code means. The first steps are to identify what parts of the code are different for people that have a specific disease. You have to analyze the differences and test hypotheses to figure out which are the biologically relevant ones.”

McLeod uses the example of the Roche-developed Zelboraf, a drug “working miracles” for people with malignant melanoma, which claimed the life of his father at the age of 60. By using genetic markers traced to one specific gene, Zelboraf, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in August 2011, has seen a high success rate for patients harboring this deadly form of skin cancer.

“That is why it is so motivational to be here and see the impact of the work you are doing on people,” said McLeod. “Inexpensive DNA sequencing and other new biotechnologies are leading to tremendous discoveries in the life sciences. I look forward to working with other innovators on ways to apply this knowledge in many different areas.”