When Swiss drug giant Roche tapped Jill German to lead Ventana Medical Systems in Oro Valley last fall, it wasn’t her first rodeo with Ventana or the Tucson area.
While a student in sports medicine at Purdue University in the late 1980s, German started traveling to Tucson to sell antibodies and other laboratory supplies to Ventana as its founder, University of Arizona pathologist Dr. Thomas Grogan, was developing its first automated tissue-staining instruments.
“Back then the company I worked for, which was bought by Roche, made the antibodies and the enzymes that Tom needed,” German said, recalling how she would call on Grogan at Ventana’s former headquarters near Interstate 10 and West Prince Road. Since then, Roche acquired Ventana in 2008 in a deal worth $3.4 billion.
Ventana is now known as Roche Tissue Diagnostics. Its tissue diagnostics for cancer are used in pathology labs worldwide.
German is leading the company, which has more than 1,500 local workers, including a small number of contractors, who develop and manufacture the company’s diagnostic instruments.
Long a leader in cancer diagnostics, Roche/Ventana is partnering with more than 50 drug companies to develop companion diagnostics to match targeted cancer therapies to specific patients based on molecular markers.
Emerging technologies at the company include diagnostics for cancer immunotherapy, which enlists the body’s own immune system to fight the disease, as well as digital pathology, which uses a computer algorithm to help identify promising therapies and allows pathologists to quickly share tissue-sample images.
German, 54, has deep experience after working with Roche Diagnostics for the last 15 years.
She joined Roche in 2004 as an area business director and moved to director of Roche’s diabetes care unit in 2008. German became vice president of sales at the diagnostics division in 2012 and was named life cycle leader of Roche Molecular Diagnostics near Zurich, Switzerland, in 2016.
The Star caught up with German and asked her about her move here and the future of the company.
Q: How did you end up with Roche?
A: My first paying job was detasseling (corn). I went to Purdue for sports therapy because I wanted to be a physical therapist — I was always very athletic and competitive, and then for a summer job I worked for Roche, and fell in love. The North American commercial headquarters are in Indianapolis, but it was a small enterprise at the time. I was a biochemical specialist and that was my first encounter with what would become Ventana.
Q: The company laid off 84 workers in 2016 but is still hiring. What are the growth plans for Roche here?
A: That was an important rebalancing with just the growth we had on this campus. Since that time, we haven’t gotten smaller, we’ve continued to invest in the growth areas of tissue diagnostics, and I think what you will see is continued investment in this campus. I can tell you that Roche globally is absolutely committed to Tucson.
We have a facility (opened in 2015) right off the highway in Marana that’s part of our manufacturing and distribution growth, so now we have now about a half a million square feet (over 10 buildings).
Q: Are you able to find enough qualified workers?
A: We’re always looking for the best people, and I can’t think of a time we haven’t had positions open at all levels. As I understand, it’s actually gotten easier to recruit because of the progress that Tucson in general has made and certainly within Roche, the stature of this organization.
We’ve surpassed a billion dollars (in total annual revenue) and that’s pretty meaningful in the Roche organization. Recruiting has gotten easier, but getting key talent is never an easy task.
Q: What about the company’s relationship with the University of Arizona?
A: We partner with them quite intensively, and that will continue. The university and I think Pima Community College both are really, really important, in different ways, they have different expertise and people coming out, so frankly both are hugely critical for us. And we do a lot even deeper in the community, so you start now to think about the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in the high schools and grade schools, and you begin thinking about what kind of jobs, what kind of opportunities might exist in the sciences. That kind of visibility is important, I think.
Q: The company has several approved companion diagnostics for cancer drugs. Why are these tests important and what’s the future test pipeline look like?
A: Companion diagnostics and personalized health care, that continues to be a really important part of our mission as well. We today have partnerships with about 50 pharmaceutical companies globally. Our intent is to ensure that companion diagnostics are available to everyone, and that’s been a very successful part of our business as well. ...
Now we can help the pharmaceutical company identify whether that targeted therapy can work, or whether that therapy is not suitable for that patient, and in health care, that’s actually as important as identifying the right therapy, it’s really important to know what therapy is going to work so the patients and providers can avoid unnecessary treatment.
Today, our primary focus is cancer, but it goes across many, many kinds of cancer. In fact, one of the most exciting things we are doing is working with Genentech so triple-negative breast cancer (which lack three common factors of cancer growth) can be identified and treated appropriately. With the targeted therapy this can increase survivability in patients. This isn’t an approved combination yet, but the paper has been published.
Q: In digital pathology, Roche recently launched new software to process tissue-slide images. What else is the company working on in that area?
A: Digital pathology consists of three components, one is the scanner, and the (Ventana) DP200 was launched in first quarter of 2018 (for research only in the U.S.), then you need a software workflow, which is uPath. You can do great work with those two things.
You can do even greater work with (computer) algorithms, which really help home in on specific disease areas. Those three things together are hugely powerful for pathologists around the world.
Q: Some say the era of personalized medicine, driven by companion diagnostics, has been too long in coming. What are some of the barriers to getting these tests approved and how is the company working to surmount them?
A: One of the key things we are doing is through these partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, we engage with them very early, because that’s the best way to speed up any process. We’ve actually done many things here as an organization to speed up access in the market. Because we’ve standardized to certain assays (tests) and instruments and algorithms, we can quickly launch a companion diagnostic much easier than, frankly, anyone in the world can do. Here we are always looking at what we can do not only to speed up the process for sure, but also it’s important to deliver a quality product, so you have to balance that with speed.
Q: What about cost? While the high cost of cancer and other drugs is a major issue, are you able to provide these tests affordably for patient and providers?
A: Cost is important around the world. At least in the United States, and this is probably a global number, when you look at the cost of health care, 2 percent is diagnostics. So contextually, diagnostics is generally not the driver in the cost of health care. And when you think about companion diagnostics specifically, the value is really seen in the context of the overall value to the patient in the therapy they either get or avoid.
If you can use the diagnostic to help guide the right therapy, then the overall value of health care should be improved. Diagnostics account for 70 percent of decision-making in health care. It’s a critical part and yet it is only 2 percent of the cost.
Q: As an executive with a major bioscience company, how do you see your role in advancing health care and improving patient outcomes?
A: The thing I love about this team is that Roche Tissue Diagnostics is living our mission — to help patients afflicted with cancer, and everything we do comes back to that mission. I think it’s important, and my leadership team and everyone on this campus would agree that its important to make a difference. We’re a global company and its important we act globally, but also locally. And it’s important to me that we make a difference in the community. When you come to work and you know you are coming here for a purpose, it’s not work.