John LaMattina: 30 Years in Pharma

John LaMattina: 30 Years in Pharma

Author: Jonathan Rose

Dr. John L. LaMattina is the former Senior Vice President, Pfizer Inc., and President, Pfizer Global Research and Development. In this role, Dr. LaMattina oversaw the drug discovery and development efforts of over 12,000 colleagues in the United States, Europe, and Asia directed towards new treatments for cancer, smoking cessation, rheumatoid arthritis, and AIDS. He has written the books Drug Truths: Dispelling the Myths About Pharma R&D and Devalued and Distrusted: Can the Pharmaceutical Industry Restore its Broken Image?

He talks to Jonathan Rose for ChemViews magazine about the changes and challenges he has seen in the pharma industry during his 30 years with Pfizer, some of the common misconceptions about drug companies, and how to change them.

How has your career developed?

I guess my story is a bit typical. I always liked chemistry and, when I was 10 years old, I got a chemistry set for my birthday. That hooked me. As I grew older, I thought that I’d like to major in chemistry and did that at Boston College. I quickly found that I liked organic synthesis best of the chemistry disciplines and went to graduate school and then did a postdoctoral fellowship in that field.

While I liked synthesizing new molecules, I was most excited at the prospect of synthesizing compounds that had biological activity. The thought of being able to use my chemistry skills to make new medicines that could benefit millions of people around the world was incredibly motivating. Working at a pharmaceutical company was the ideal job for someone like myself and I was very fortunate to be hired by Pfizer to work in their Groton, Connecticut, research labs in 1977. I was with Pfizer for over 30 years.

What did you enjoy most about your time at Pfizer?

The best part about being at Pfizer was working with some of the most talented scientists in the world. They taught me something new on a daily basis. During my time, leading first discovery research, then development, and then both R&D, we advanced many programs that led to a number of new drugs such as the anticancer agents Tarceva, Xalkori, and Inlyta, Chantix for smoking cessation, Selzentry for AIDS, Lyrica for fibromyalgia, and Xelanz for rheumatoid arthritis. It was a terrific experience.

You left Pfizer in 2007. What are you doing now?

Now, I have become part of the biotech world. I am a Senior Partner at PureTech Ventures where we are forming new companies looking at new ways to treat obesity, gastrointestinal (GI) diseases, depression, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other diseases. I am on the Board of Directors of Ligand Pharmaceuticals and the Scientific Advisory Board of Trevena Pharmaceuticals. But I have also become an author, having written “Drug Truths – Dispelling the myths of pharmaceutical R&D” in 2009 and “Devalued & Distrusted – Can the pharmaceutical industry restore its broken image?” in 2013. I also have a blog on

In what ways have you seen the pharmaceutical industry change over your three-decade career at Pfizer?

When I began at Pfizer in 1977, the pharmaceutical industry was highly fractionated with probably close to 100 different companies looking to discover and develop new drugs. The industry has consolidated greatly since then. Of the 45 members of the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers Association in 1989, only 9 companies remain – although a number of foreign companies like Takeda, Japan, and new companies like Amgen are now part of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). However, the biotech industry has developed since the 1970s and literally hundreds of these small companies exist today.

But this is a much better time to do drug R&D than it was when I started decades ago at Pfizer. The immense amount of knowledge now available about biological processes and diseases, thanks to the human genome project, have provided new insights as to what projects to attack in the lab. In addition, the technological advances that scientists now employ were science fiction when I started. Now, they are everyday tools.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the pharmaceutical industry?

The challenge faced by the industry has been the same for decades – discovering and developing safe, new, and effective medicines. Technology has helped speed the discovery process. However, there are tremendous new hurdles in clinical development that didn’t exist years ago. You need to now show that any new therapy is at least as good, if not superior, to existing medications. In addition, you need to prove that your compound actually has long-term benefits in providing favorable outcomes in treating the consequences of disease. No longer can you simply show that a compound lowers bad cholesterol and is safe. You must also show that this new compound reduces heart attacks and strokes. To prove this, you need to run clinical trials involving thousands of patients for at least 3–5 years. Such studies add not just time, but also costs as these types of trials can cost $300–800 million. This is a major change from 10–15 years ago.

What is the most significant misconception the general public has about drug companies?

People have no clue about the value that pharma companies bring to the healthcare system, how difficult drug R&D is, and how much money an effective pill can save on overall healthcare costs. People also fail to realize that it is only the biopharmaceutical industry that produces the experimental medicines that prove or disprove medical hypotheses. This isn’t done at academic institutions or the NIH (National Institute of Health). It is done by the Pfizers of the world.

Your books, Drug Truths and Devalued and Distrusted, deal directly with the realities behind the complicated process of drug discovery and development. What motivated you to write them?

I got tired of the cacophony of negativism on the pharmaceutical industry promoted by Marcia Angell, Ray Moynihan, John Abramson, and now Ben Goldacre. Pharma isn’t perfect. But these people continue to spread views on pharma that are flat out wrong. I have attempted to counteract their views with some facts.

Have the books had the kind of impact you were expecting?

Not nearly enough, but it’s a start. Most people don’t want to hear that pharma is, at its roots, a good and important industry. The best story I can share is on Drug Truths. I gave a copy to a cousin of mine whose partner is a psychiatrist. When he first saw the title, he said, “Ha! Drug truths, I bet”. Then he read the first chapter and said, “Well, that does make sense”. This was repeated with each chapter. At the end, he had a different view of the industry.

I hope that that’s the impact that both Drug Truths and Devalued & Distrusted have on those who read each book.

Aside from your books, are you involved in any other public outreach or forums relevant to the pharmaceutical industry?

Yes, I am a contributor to, where I have a blog. I cover a variety of topics on the pharmaceutical industry and even a few other health issues.

What do you do in your spare time?

Actually, I am a bit of a nerd! I generally work out for about an hour a day. I really do believe that diet and exercise are the best ways to maintain one’s health and that drugs should be a last resort! My workouts vary, but generally involve running, elliptical cross-trainers, and weights. I also take a power vinyasa yoga class twice a week. I am a crossword fanatic and like other puzzles such as Ken Ken. I love movies and probably see over 50 a year. I like to read both novels and non-fiction. And best of all, I have a new five-month-old grandson and I love to spend time with him.

Thank you for this interview.

John L. LaMattina graduated from Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, USA, in 1971 with a B.S. in Chemistry. He attended the University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, USA, working with Professor Robert E. Lyle and received a Ph.D. from there in Organic Chemistry in 1975. He then moved to Princeton University, NJ, USA, as a National Institute of Health Postdoctoral Fellow in the laboratory of Professor E. C. Taylor. He joined Pfizer Inc., Groton, CT, USA, in 1977 as a medicinal chemist.

During his 30 years with Pfizer, LaMattina held positions of increasing responsibility, including Vice President of US Discovery Operations in 1993, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Discovery Operations in 1998, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Development in 1999, and President, Global Research and Development.

LaMattina retired from Pfizer in 2007 and is now a Senior Partner at PureTech Ventures, Boston, MA, USA. He serves on the Board of Directors of Ligand Pharmaceuticals, La Jolla, CA, USA, and the Scientific Advisory Board of Trevena Pharmaceuticals, King of Prussia, PA, USA. LaMattina also serves on the Board of Trustees of Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, USA, where he chairs the Academic Affairs Committee.

Selected Publications

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