Interview: Applying the science


Giulio Cerroni is Managing Director of LGC Genomics, a division of the LGC Group that delivers services and products for DNA and genetic analysis, as well as sample preparation. He talked to Susan Birks about genomics, disruptive technology and new pharmaceutical markets

Whether it is for screening newborns for cystic fibrosis, or for helping forensic teams screen and prioritise samples for DNA analysis, or enabling farmers to evaluate whether crops in the field are worth harvesting, Giulio Cerroni, MD of LGC Genomics is excited to see how the science he studied at university is now being successfully applied by industry.

Based in the UK, LGC is an international leader in the supply of laboratory services, measurement standards, reference materials and genomics products and services. Customers include the public sector (forensic, government institutions and universities) and pharma – one of the biggest industrial users of its standards and reference materials.

‘In the genomics sector, we are providing both products and services to the pharmaceutical industry as well as the agri-bio and other sectors.’ Genomics is a relatively young sector that has developed rapidly over the past few decades and much of the recent academic research is now being applied; for example, molecular tests are being used in the agri-bio sector, veterinary practice and in clinical settings.

In terms of clinical applications, Cerroni says the US market is being driven by diagnostic test reimbursement rates which is funding more molecular tests because they are quicker and more cost effective.

Many companies supplying tools around next-generation sequencing are also now looking at how to supply the clinical market – an example of where new technology can create new markets rather than just being disruptive, he says.

Genomics is fundamentally changing the way the pharma industry operates: ‘Biomarkers and companion diagnostics all come back to genetic variation. Being able to anticipate which drug treatment would work best for that person can save lives,’ he says.

Biomarkers and companion diagnostics all come back to genetic variation. Being able to anticipate which drug treatment would work best for that person can save lives

Born in the UK to Italian parents and growing up in Swindon, Cerroni says he was always interested in science and chose to study environmental science as a degree at Cardiff University. He realised early on, however, that he wanted to be in the commercial world of industry rather than academic research. An advertisement for a sales position in a science magazine led to his first job – selling molecular biology products in a small US company that, shortly after, was acquired by DuPont. Many of his core values stem from these formative years at the blue chip company, he says.

He soon became part of the biotech division involved in producing radio chemicals for sequencing. ‘Many of the techniques being used today stem from the radio chemicals being developed in the 1970s. When I started my career the majority of sequencing was done manually using radio chemicals on gel and on film. The scientists had to be very experienced to be able to interpret the different bands – such expertise is very difficult to scale-up.’

Cerroni was lucky to have early exposure to the new equipment coming through at that time – HPLC, DNA synthesis and sequencing equipment, as well as reagents, virology and HIV diagnostics. ‘I was involved in lots of scientific areas, including molecular biology, drug discovery and analytical chemistry, so it was great experience.’

He still thrives on constant innovation from the market. ‘I like having to learn new things and keep abreast of what others are doing to ensure our products are better.’ He says he’s been fortunate to meet many Nobel laureates in his career, including James Watson (who along with Crick won the 1962 Nobel prize for identifying DNA’s double helix structure) and Sydney Brenner (the South African biologist and 2002 Nobel laureate, who made significant contributions to work on the genetic code).

Cerroni admits he is driven by science simply because it is there, but he is also driven by performance. ‘I like to know what ‘good’ looks like,’ he says, and sees his role in the company as making sure people have the tools to do what they need to, and enabling people to be the best they can, creating a team.

‘The more experience and broader the role, the more it becomes clear that it is not about you, it’s about having the right people around.’ An avid Arsenal FC supporter, he turns to the football league for a further analogy: ‘It’s not always about throwing money at everything; it’s about getting the best out of the team that you have and the marketplace in which you operate, positioning yourself to be as successful as possible.’

The thing that excites me about genomics is that ability to do things better, at a lower cost point

He admires the American ethos of encouraging decision making based on a ‘correct directional approach’, in contrast to a more cautious approach in Europe. Most US companies would go ahead and do it, with the view that they can adjust things on the way if they find it’s wrong,’ he says. He believes there is a lot to be said for being bolder, encouraging people to take more risk, and accepting and rewarding those who try to do something differently, rather than just doing the same thing over and over.

‘The thing that excites me about genomics is that ability to do things better, at a lower cost point.’ It is a philosophy evident in LGC’s growing product range – equipment and assays developed in-house to make genomic tests more scalable and cost efficient.

Cerroni illustrates recent scientific progress through the dramatic reduction in market costs for next-generation sequencing: ‘Where sequencing one million base pairs used to cost US$10,000, it now costs $5, while whole sequencing of the genome currently costs $15,000 – an eight-fold drop on initial market costs.’

The other change he sees is the globalisation of customers and a shift in Big Pharma’s interests from the EU and US to emerging economies. ‘In genomics, traditionally we have focused on the EU and the US but our customers are moving into Latin America, setting up facilities in those geographies, so it is also a focus for us, along with other markets such as China.’ As general manager for different businesses, he has spent some time in China, the US and countries such as India and Russia.

Cerroni admits he is driven by science simply because it is there

Cerroni admits he is driven by science simply because it is there

Globalisation brings with it standardisation and regulation, he reflects and, particularly for the pharma sector, things have to be done in a certain way. ‘The challenge for industry is that we have disruptive technology coming through, but yet industry still has to meet current regulations.’ He has some empathy with the pharma sector that is having to rationalise its workforce and reinvent itself. He says: ‘It’s about being more nimble, getting products to markets sooner, and being more present in emerging geographies.’

He compares the current pharma sector to an ocean-going tanker: ‘It’s quite difficult if you are the size of a tanker to try and shift lanes!’ However, such change can provide opportunities. When Pfizer closed its UK Sandwich facility, many of its science tool suppliers suddenly lost business. ‘We acquired part of the site, providing services back to Pfizer and other companies. The growing move to ‘contracting out’ is of benefit to LGC’s genomics business. It was, after all, set up by ex-GSK scientists who saw a commercial opportunity in offering genomic services at a more cost-effective rate, enabling Big Pharma to focus on the value added stuff.

‘Change is always difficult and it is even harder when you have previously been very successful,’ he says. However, he sees plenty of opportunity for established companies (and countries) to help emerging ones to accelerate their development in terms of regulations and standards and ‘then build a business around their growth’.

‘Providing good healthcare is especially difficult for developing nations that don\'t have the healthcare systems we have,’ he says. ‘We have to make innovative and lower-priced products for these markets.’

Change is always difficult and it is even harder when you have previously been very successful

Another recent change in the clinical setting that is proving to be of benefit to the company is the demand for disease biomarkers and the increasing use of cohort studies (e.g. groups of patients who all died of the same illness) to help identify such markers. ‘We are being asked by study groups in a hospital to look at their patient group, extract the DNA, genotype the samples, and see if we can spot a marker for a certain disease state that could then potentially be used by somebody else to make a diagnostic kit.

‘Our technology has, for example, already been used to screen newborns for potential inherited medical conditions.’

The business is also benefiting from the push to get healthcare technology closer to where the patient is. ‘As we move on to “point of care” and “near patient” treatments the lower the cost of the tests and the easier they are to do, the better.’

Asked whether society is ready for the full exploitation of genetic traits, he says it all boils down to how we apply the information.‘We all want to live longer, eat better, make lifestyle choices. The analysis of genetic material doesn’t mean that the DNA gets changed; it allows you to make choices.’ He cites as an example actress Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a double mastectomy after discovering that she carries the BRCA1 cancer gene (a factor that gives her an 87% chance of contracting breast cancer).

‘What is so good about the job is that what we do enables genetic analysis for improved healthcare and crop breeding to feed an increasing world population. I am proud of our contribution to a better world.’

Curriculum Vitae
April 2013 to presentMD of LGC’s Genomic Division
2008 to 2013Various positions at ThermoFisher Scientific, rising to Vice President and General Manager
2005 to 2008General Manager/CEO, Abgene
2000 to 2005Managing Director, Anachem
1996 to 1999Sales Director, ICN Biomedicals
1982 to 1996European Business Development Manager, DuPont
MBA Warwick Business School
BSc Environmental Science, Cardiff University, Wales