Ex-Genzyme chief gives $10m to MGH cancer unit

Retired biotechnology executive Henri A. Termeer, who built Genzyme Corp. into the largest US company specializing in drugs to treat rare genetic disorders, is donating $10 million to Massachusetts General Hospital to establish it as a world leader in personalized medicine.

The new Henri and Belinda Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies will be aimed at bringing the emerging field into the forefront of treatment and research. It’s initial focus will be on drugs tailored to the genetic makeup of tumors, especially breast cancers, lung cancers, and leukemias. Currently, there are few effective treatments for patients with less common types of the diseases.

Targeted therapies attack points of vulnerability in a tumor’s genetic makeup, disabling pathways that enable the cancer to survive and grow.

“I hope this will help Massachusetts be recognized globally as the knowledge center in targeted medicines,’’ said Termeer, 65, who stepped down as chief executive of Cambridge-based Genzyme last spring. ‘’This is a global effort, but Massachusetts has the responsibility to lead, to use the talents and capabilities it has built over many years.’’

The center will be run by Dr. Jose Beselga, one of the world’s leading cancer specialists, who was recruited from Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology in Barcelona last year to be chief of hematology-oncology at Mass. General. It will be part of the 25-year-old Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, led by Dr. Daniel A. Haber.

Termeer’s gift is one of the largest earmarked for fighting cancer in the hospital’s history, but the hospital will solicit additional money from Boston area philanthropists, starting Tuesday night at a reception at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston, during which the center will officially be unveiled. Hospital officials hope to raise another $10 million over the next two years to expand the center’s work.

Mass. General, the largest hospital in New England and the nation’s largest research hospital, will use the Termeer donation to renovate space on the seventh floor of its Yawkey Center for Outpatient Care, where the Termeer Center will be located.

The money will also be used to buy medical equipment, recruit new employees, and offset the cost of clinical trials it will host. Initially, the center will have about 25 staff members, including new hires and current hospital employees who will be redeployed.

Doctors and scientists working in the Termeer Center hope to test a new generation of molecular-based targeted drugs that could transform cancer care.

“In the future, we’re going to see cancers defined not only by their site of origin but by the molecular alternations that are the drivers of particular cancers,’’ Beselga said.

Mass. General already is among the most advanced hospitals in the world in testing personalized medicines. Over the past year alone, the number of clinical trials it sponsors using targeted therapies has roughly tripled, Beselga said. In the spring, Dr. Alice Tsang Shaw, a Mass. General thoracic oncologist, presented data to the American Society of Clinical Oncology showing promising results from a Pfizer Inc. drug that works by inhibiting a genetic mutation in non-small cell lung cancer cells.

Beselga said such developments suggest doctors and scientists are taking the right approach with targeted medicines. But he cautioned that tumors eventually can develop resistance to the new drugs so researchers may have to understand genetics well enough to outwit the tumors with additional treatments or drug combinations.

Personalized medicine programs are underway in other area research labs, including at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, which like Mass. General is a Harvard University teaching hospital, and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge. Mass. General plans to work with both, along with other hospitals and universities in the United States and abroad. It also will collaborate with drug makers such as Switzerland’s Novartis AG, which has its global research headquarters in Cambridge, and Sanofi SA, the French company that bought Genzyme for $20.1 billion in April.

As part of that deal, Termeer cashed in Genzyme shares worth at least $145.9 million, in addition to receiving a $12.5 million severance package, according to a regulatory filing. Termeer said his gift to Mass. General is an important step in a larger plan to promote the field of personalized medicine through work with biotechnology start-ups, investment groups, regulators, and health insurance payers that must develop new ways to pay for targeted therapies.

Termeer earlier this year joined the boards of two biotechs, AVEO Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Cambridge, which has a kidney cancer drug in late-stage development, and Verastem Inc., a Cambridge start-up developing treatments to attack cancer stem cells.

His push for more personalized medicine is motivated by his work at Genzyme, which pioneered outreach programs for small populations of patients with rare enzyme deficiencies such as Gaucher and Fabry diseases, and convinced regulators to approve treatments for those debilitating conditions.

“In a way, Henri has been a precursor of this [Mass. General] effort in his work with rare diseases at Genzyme,’’ Beselga said. “So he’s playing in very familiar territory.’’

Termeer said he also was inspired by his wife Belinda’s experience with a targeted diagnostic test when she had two tumors removed from her breast four years ago. Belinda Termeer was treated at Mass. General, where her husband sits on the board of trustees. On his advice, her tissue samples were sent to a California company, Genomic Health Inc., which determined they were slow-growing. That allowed her to forego chemotherapy.

“There’s a whole entrepreneurial world developing around doing this and doing it better,’’ Termeer said. His hope is that such advanced testing — and highly specialized drugs that attack specific cancers — will one day be mainstream. “The ultimate goal is that this targeted approach becomes the way you think about research and innovation,’’ he said.

Massachusetts General Hospital

As chief executive of Cambridge’s Genzyme Corp. for nearly three decades, Henri A. Termeer built the largest US biotechnology company focused on specialized drugs to target rare genetic disorders. Today, the Massachusetts General Hospital is set to disclose that Termeer, 65, who retired from Genzyme this spring, will donate $10 million to endow a new Henri and Belinda Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies at the Harvard University hospital.