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Pharmaceutical consultant and MU grad visits campus, gives talk

Oct. 28, 2010 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- A 1987 Marshall University graduate visited campus Wednesday afternoon and spoke at an evening seminar hosted by the Marshall Institute for Interdisciplinary Research.

Blair Gibson, the former executive director for Portfolio Strategy and Strategic Planning at Merck & Co., spoke about research and development productivity and opportunities for academic collaboration in the pharmaceutical industry. The subject ties into the mission of MIIR and the Marshall University Research Corporation, which are set up to encourage biotechnology growth and development in the labs of the Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Center.

Before the evening seminar, Gibson, who now serves as a pharmaceutical and biotechnology consultant, shared his story with The Herald-Dispatch about how his undergraduate experience at Marshall helped shape the direction of his life.

"I wanted to go away to school," said Gibson, who grew up in Washington, D.C., as the youngest child in his family. "My siblings all went to the University of Maryland or Johns Hopkins University, but I told my mom I wanted to get away.

"She found Marshall and told me it was far enough away and had liberal arts and science programs," he added. "I came for a visit and loved it."

He majored in both chemistry and French, hoping to start a career in medicinal chemistry. But there was a chemistry professor, James Douglas, who pointed him in a different direction.

"He told me to stay out of the lab," Gibson said. "He said I could talk pharmaceuticals. I took him to heart. No one told me I had this kind of gift. And my first job out of college was as a sales rep for a pharm company. I was out selling them instead of developing them."

Then there was French professor Terence McQueeny, who has since retired. Gibson said McQueeny got him into the exchange program in France. Gibson taught English to French students, but the experience allowed him to be immersed in the culture.

"It allowed me to perfect my French," he said. "Even today, people say I don't show an accent."

Gibson said experience enabled him to translate that into a decade-long assignment with Merck & Co., from 1991-2000, running operations in France, Switzerland and Spain.

"If Dr. McQueeny hadn't sent me on that exchange, my French wouldn't have been that good, and I might not have been as attractive (as an employee)," he said.

The other professor who impacted his life was the recently retired Simon Perry. Gibson said he took the political science classes because Perry taught him how to think critically.

"I remember my first class and the first question he asked was, 'How many of you here know the truth?'" Gibson recounted. "I was in the front row and put my hand up, and he said, 'Mr. Gibson, what makes you think you know the truth?' (Perry) was a great thinker."

Gibson hasn't been back to Huntington since 1990. In the 20 years since, he has helped manage budgets in the millions of dollars. But he said he's seen for some time how research universities such as Marshall can play a critical role in the future of medicine. And that's not just in the development of new drugs. It can involve comparative research to determine how well two drugs are working and compliance and adherence research to find out why people aren't finishing their prescriptions.

"There's a significant innovative gap in pharmaceuticals," he said. "That's where Marshall University and others can help."

He'd really like to see his alma mater succeed, because it helped him succeed.

"If we went back to 1982 and said where do you want to go, I'd say Marshall," Gibson said. "I have three children (6 years old and 14-month-old twins), and I'd send them here.

"When I toured campus Wednesday, a floodgate of memories opened. While there has been physical changes, the spirit of the university has remained strong and proud."

Blair Gibson's career highlights

Gibson headed the global launch of JANUVIA, a blockbuster drug for the treatment of type-2 diabetes. The launch of this drug was praised by the pharmaceutical industry as one of the best launches ever of a primary-care drug.

Gibson's work experience has been largely global in scope and he has even served expatriate assignments in Europe and Latin America.

Gibson has in-depth experience in the area of tradeoff-decision analysis for portfolios of marketed brands and late-stage clinical studies. He has published two papers on strategic resources allocation and four portfolios of marketed products on tradeoff-decision analysis in phase IIb-IV.

He advises pharmaceutical companies and financial institutions on mergers and acquisitions in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries.

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