TO FRANZ HUMER, the best news about modern medicine is that it's about to change dramatically. The CEO of $22 billion drugmaker Roche sees radical shifts in the way patients and doctors think about prescription drugs. Thanks to rapidly advancing genetic research - such as that performed by Genentech, majority owned by Roche - prescribing will be extraordinarily accurate: Doctors will use genetic testing to perfectly pair patients with drugs. Treatment no longer will be hit-and-miss ("call in three days if the drug isn't working") because each patient will leave the doctor's office with the right drug at the exact dosage he needs.
Yes, that's the good news. Meanwhile, Humer faces the same questions any pharmaceuticals CEO confronts: Are drugs too expensive? Why don't people in developing nations have ready access to pharmaceuticals? Why does it take so long to develop drugs that are effective against diseases such as AIDS or SARS? Monumental, enveloping issues - and these are Humer's everyday concerns.
Not to mention the fact that the pharmaceutical industry is still hung over from the merger spree of the last several years. GlaxoSmithKline was formed in the 2000 merger of GlaxoWellcome and SmithKlineBeecham, each the product of an earlier merger. The $21 billion Novartis was born of the 1996 merger of Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz, both European pharma giants. Big Pharma, as insiders term the dozen or so global corporations that drive drug research and marketing, seems determined to grow bigger.
Indeed, deals threaten on Humer's own horizon. His crosstown competitor, Novartis, has steadily accumulated Roche shares, and at this writing owns about one-third of the company's common stock. If you were Franz Humer, what would you do when you found this out? Hint: He didn't reach for the panic button, but for his skis.