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.”
I’m so shocked and saddened to learn of Tachi Yamada’s passing! He was such a great R&D leader of our industry for decades. R.I.P. Tachi. We will all miss you!https://t.co/1C3FdhjOvy
— John Maraganore (@JMaraganore) August 5, 2021
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.
Very sorry to hear of the passing of Tachi Yamada, a remarkable person, scientist and leader. I had the privilege of working closely with him on @gatesfoundation Grand Challenges. Here’s a reminiscence from my book w/ @AbdallahDaar, “The Grandest Challenge.” pic.twitter.com/iS2ht54Bn6
— Dr. Peter A Singer, OC (@PeterASinger) August 4, 2021
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.
We're sad to hear of the death of Tachi Yamada, who was a huge part of our history, pictured here during his time as our chairman of R&D. He had an immense impact on GSK and global health. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues. pic.twitter.com/p4y20V8Wpv
— GSK (@GSK) August 5, 2021
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.