Interview: DeVore takes the reins at stem cell centre

By Melissa Trudinger
Monday, 26 August, 2002

A few months ago, Dianna DeVore was an associate director of patents at Irish pharmaceutical company Elan in San Francisco. Now she's the chief operating officer of the National Centre for Stem Cells, Australia's first biotechnology Centre of Excellence. With a PhD in genetics and a law degree, DeVore is well equipped to get the centre up and running.

Her involvement with the centre began with a collaboration between Monash spin-off Copyrat and Elan.

DeVore said she was first approached by Alan Trounson and David Campbell, who asked her if she was interested in being the CEO of the National Centre for Advanced Cell Engineering, which had received infrastructure support as a Major National Research Facility from the Federal government.

But when the team behind the Stem Cell Centre of Excellence heard the centre was one of four short-listed applicants, they asked DeVore if she would join the bid. She flew down to Australia to take part in the bid's interview with the selection panel.

"It was really exciting and really terrifying, there was so much at stake here," DeVore said.

At the interview, the panel asked DeVore if she would be willing to commit to the centre if their bid was selected. The answer was yes, and now she is signed up for a minimum of three years as both the chief operating officer and the chief commercialisation officer.

"She was absolutely crucial to obtaining the Biotechnology Centre of Excellence in the first place," said Alan Trounson, CEO of the new centre.

Trounson noted that she took most of the questions on IP and commercialisation issues during the interview, and saw that fact that she was willing to give up her position at Elan was very important.

"I feel I have someone very special as a partner," he said. "I have skills in management of science, where she has skills in IP and commercialisation. These partnerships are really quite crucial."

The first job on the table, DeVore said, was to get the deed of agreement with the Federal government sorted out, so that the centre can access the funding it has been promised. "We have been working with them very closely on that," DeVore said.

Along with that, DeVore is working on the development of the business plan, incorporation of the centre, and beginning the dialogue with the academic and commercial organisations that will be participating in the centre.

'Never a dull moment'

The underlying legal documents that will be needed to run the centre also have a place in DeVore's inbox. "It's been a lot of groundwork, trying to get the systems in place," she said. "It's been quite challenging, there is never a dull moment."

But for all that, DeVore finds the process very exciting. "We have the opportunity to build something really great here," she said.

One of the big challenges DeVore sees is getting the various nodes of the centre to work together in synergy. She explained that although the core of the centre will be in Victoria, important nodes would be located in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia.

Australia's three commercial stem cell companies -- BresaGen, ES Cell International and Stem Cell Sciences -- have also expressed a desire to work together for mutual benefit, DeVore said. "It's going to be hard for all the groups to find a way to work together," she said.

Helping out will be the rest of the management team. Along with Trounson as CEO and Anthony Moore as CFO, Prof Martin Pera from the Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development will be the chief scientific officer and head of the embryonic stem cell program.

In addition, Prof Paul Simmons from the Peter MacCallum Cancer institute will lead the adult stem cell program and Monash's Richard Boyd will lead the transplantation and immunology group.

"They are three great choices for making things work," said DeVore, noting that the evaluation process for the centre's scientific programs was just beginning.

"Our job is to look at what [the scientists] are doing, and to see how they fit in with other programs. It's the whole point of the centre -- to provide the synergy."

Mandate for sustainability

At the heart of the centre is commercialisation of the science, DeVore said. "It's not a research organisation, it's not a granting body. We have a mandate to move towards sustainability. That means we have to generate our own revenue," she explained.

DeVore said she believed he first products to come out of the centre would be research reagents like growth factors and antibodies. She expected that these products would become available in the first few years of the centre's operations.

"We're realistic about the therapies, we recognise that they will be long term," she said. In between the two may be cell products and cell lines, for toxicology models and drug screening methods.

"Who knows, something really exciting may happen, but we have to drive toward key outcomes," she said.

DeVore is not too worried about the potential impact on the centre if the Federal government does not pass the Stem Cell bill.

"If the bill gets bogged down, we have plenty that can still be done," she said. "We'll work to our best ability within whatever the framework is.

"People lose sight of why we are doing this. I'm part of this because we have a chance to change the quality of people's lives," she said.

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