Tadataka Yamada (Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Sci­ence pi­o­neer, phar­ma re­search chief, glob­al health ad­vo­cate and biotech en­tre­pre­neur Tadata­ka ‘Tachi’ Ya­ma­da has died

Tadata­ka Ya­ma­da, a tow­er­ing physi­cian-sci­en­tist who made his name in acad­e­mia be­fore trans­form­ing drug de­vel­op­ment at Glax­o­SmithK­line and de­vel­op­ing vac­cines for malar­ia and menin­gi­tis at the Gates Foun­da­tion, died un­ex­pect­ed­ly of nat­ur­al caus­es at his home in Seat­tle Wednes­day morn­ing.

He was 76. Fra­zier Health­care Part­ners’ David Socks con­firmed his death.

Known wide­ly by the mononym “Tachi,” Ya­ma­da had a glo­be­trot­ting ca­reer and ar­rived in in­dus­try rel­a­tive­ly late in life. A 2004 In­de­pen­dent ar­ti­cle not­ed GSK had asked Ya­ma­da to stay on be­yond his ap­proach­ing 60th birth­day, the com­pa­ny’s usu­al re­tire­ment age. Ya­ma­da would con­tin­ue work­ing for the next 17 years, steer­ing the Gates Foun­da­tion’s glob­al health di­vi­sion for 6 years, fund­ing Jim Wil­son’s gene ther­a­py work when few would touch it, launch­ing Take­da Vac­cines and co-found­ing a se­ries of high-pro­file biotechs.

Trib­utes to Ya­ma­da poured out Thurs­day night from a wide range of promi­nent fig­ures from for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton to Al­ny­lam CEO John Maraganore, re­flect­ing on Ya­ma­da’s work as a soft-spo­ken men­tor, his in­flu­ence across biotech R&D and fas­tid­i­ous, un­spar­ing de­fense of pub­lic health.

“Dr. Tachi Ya­ma­da was an ex­tra­or­di­nary sci­en­tist and leader who used his bril­liant mind and kind, good heart to im­prove the lives of mil­lions of peo­ple,” Clin­ton, who worked with Ya­ma­da at the HIV-fo­cused Clin­ton Health Ac­cess Ini­tia­tive, said in a state­ment. “Tachi brought a world of ex­pe­ri­ence, knowl­edge, and good judge­ment to CHAI. He in­spired us all to help more peo­ple and save more lives.”

Nim­bus CEO Jeb Keiper called him a “ti­tan of R&D.” Pe­ter Hotez, the promi­nent vac­ci­nol­o­gist for ne­glect­ed trop­i­cal dis­ease, said “he had a great vi­sion for glob­al health, and will be great­ly missed.”

Pe­ter A. Singer, spe­cial ad­vi­sor to WHO chief Tedros Ad­hanom Ghe­breye­sus, shared an ex­cerpt from his book re­call­ing Ya­ma­da’s ear­ly days as pres­i­dent of glob­al health at the Gates Foun­da­tion, where he pushed sci­en­tists to pro­duce tan­gi­ble re­sults from the “Grand Chal­lenges” strat­e­gy, an ef­fort to back new so­lu­tions to glob­al crises like HIV or tu­ber­cu­lo­sis.

“This high­ly fo­cused man was clear­ly chang­ing the grand chal­lenges strat­e­gy from straight dis­cov­er to ‘show me the goods,'” Singer wrote.

Born in Japan, Ya­ma­da was sent by his fa­ther to board­ing school in An­dover, Mass­a­chu­setts and stud­ied at Stan­ford be­fore land­ing at NYU for med­ical school. The US Army Med­ical Re­search In­sti­tute of In­fec­tious Dis­eases at Fort De­t­rick, MD gave him a lab af­ter he fin­ished res­i­den­cy and, though he lat­er said he had known lit­tle about how to even do re­search, he be­gan learn­ing pro­tein chem­istry and try­ing to un­der­stand the role of small pep­tides in the body.

Af­ter a fel­low­ship, he end­ed up at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, re­cruit­ed by Bill Kel­ley, the same chair­man of med­i­cine who re­cruit­ed Jef­frey Lei­den, Gary Nabel and a se­ries of oth­er sci­en­tists who be­came promi­nent in acad­e­mia and biotech. He soon be­came head of gas­troen­terol­o­gy and stayed for 13 years, ris­ing to be­come the school’s chair­man of med­i­cine, un­til a head­hunter called on be­half of a drug­mak­er then known as Beecham SmithK­line.

Ya­ma­da had turned down nu­mer­ous of­fers to be a vice pres­i­dent of this or that, but he soon be­came en­thralled with the in­tel­lec­tu­al chal­lenge of mak­ing med­i­cines: How much could go wrong, and the supreme pay­off when things went right.

Af­ter SmithK­line merged with Glaxo to form GSK in 2001, Ya­ma­da rose to chair­man of R&D and be­came fa­mous for over­haul­ing the way the com­pa­ny de­vel­oped drugs. To pre­vent bu­reau­crat­ic bloat, he stripped the phar­ma down in­to small­er labs — 400-per­son max — that would op­er­ate with the mind­set, com­mit­ment and hus­tle of biotech star­tups, de­vel­op­ing mol­e­cules from dis­cov­ery to clin­i­cal test­ing. The num­ber of com­pounds in GSK’s pipeline soon dou­bled.

He al­so earned a name for hold­ing phar­ma to a high­er stan­dard. Af­ter the merg­er, GSK, one of the world’s lead­ing sell­ers of HIV meds, sued Nel­son Man­dela and the South African gov­ern­ment over how the coun­try priced the HIV drugs. “‘That shocked and em­bar­rassed me and made me won­der what I was do­ing in the com­pa­ny,” Ya­ma­da told JCI. “I told the board of di­rec­tors I thought we should ac­tu­al­ly be mak­ing med­i­cines for peo­ple who need them.”

He con­vinced them to set up a lab­o­ra­to­ry to fo­cus on vac­cines for ma­jor pub­lic health crises, such as tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and malar­ia. That work was fund­ed in part by the Gates Foun­da­tion, which in 2006 of­fered Ya­ma­da a po­si­tion as pres­i­dent of glob­al health. There, he helped de­vel­op and de­ploy the MenAfriVac, a 50-cent-per-dose menin­gi­tis vac­cine that could be wide­ly de­ployed across Africa.

In 2013, Take­da brought Ya­ma­da back to in­dus­try as CSO and CMO. He promised to in­ject a sense of “ur­gency” in the drug­mak­er, long a lag­gard be­hind the big phar­mas. He helped de­vel­op the ul­cer­a­tive col­i­tis drug En­tyvio and per­son­al­ly over­saw the launch of Take­da Vac­cines, a di­vi­sion that is now help­ing man­u­fac­ture No­vavax’s Covid-19 shot and near­ing com­ple­tion of the sec­ond-ever vac­cine for dengue fever, a long-ne­glect­ed mos­qui­to-borne virus.

In his lat­er ca­reer, he be­came a ven­ture part­ner at Fra­zier Health­care Part­ners and co-found­ed a se­ries of com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing the GI spe­cial­ist Phath­om and the vac­cine play­er Hill­e­Vax, both Take­da spin­outs.

Per­haps most no­tably, he teamed up with Wil­son, whom he had first men­tored at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan. Af­ter Jesse Gelsinger’s death in 1999, few in in­dus­try or acad­e­mia want­ed to work with Wil­son or with any­thing hav­ing to do with gene ther­a­py.

Ya­ma­da, though, felt that Wil­son and oth­er re­searchers had been un­fair­ly de­mo­nized. “I hate that kind of thing,” he lat­er said, and lob­bied skep­tics at GSK to fund Wil­son with just un­der $30 mil­lion over the next decade. The mon­ey helped keep Wil­son’s lab alive as they de­vel­oped new tech­nol­o­gy that al­lowed gene ther­a­py to be de­liv­ered far more safe­ly, help­ing bring about a re­birth in the field and the US’ sec­ond-ever ap­proved gene ther­a­py, Zol­gens­ma, for a rare and once-fa­tal ge­net­ic dis­ease.

In the last 3 years, the pair found­ed 2 com­pa­nies, Pas­sage Bio and G2Bio, to ad­vance those ef­forts fur­ther. Pas­sage now has 2 ther­a­pies in the clin­ic, with 5 more in de­vel­op­ment. G2Bio is try­ing to ad­vance gene ther­a­pies for larg­er, more com­mon and com­plex dis­eases.

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