How Revlon and Lilly Tartikoff Rescued Herceptin from the Abyss

Venture Philanthropy Case Study II

In our previous venture philanthropy discussion, we noted Bob Beall’s unwavering determination, as the President of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, to help find novel treatments for Cystic Fibrosis. After decades of CF patients receiving treatments which only relieved symptoms, The Vertex Pharmaceuticals—Cystic Fibrosis Foundation partnership allowed for the development of two breakthrough drugs to help combat the underlying cause of the disease. It made me wonder if there were other people like Bob Beall, willing to do whatever it takes to conquer a life threatening disease.

In the first issue of In Sickness and Wealth, we detailed some of Dennis Slamon’s work with breast cancer, more specifically with the HER-2 gene defect and his groundbreaking work on Herceptin. While Slamon and Genentech were obviously critical in the development and commercialization of Herceptin, there were two other heroes in this great story. One was the Revlon Corporation and the other was Lilly Tartikoff.

If the name Lilly Tartikoff sounds familiar it’s for several reasons. She was a very accomplished dancer with George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. She also held an advisory position with Max Factor, the cosmetic company that Revlon eventually controlled. And Lilly was married to Brandon Tartikoff—the TV and programming icon who brought you shows like Cheers and turned around a major network. In the early 1980’s Brandon was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and in an intriguing twist of fate, became a patient of Dr. Slamon.

Miffed that Slamon wasn’t volunteering much information about her husband’s condition (due to patient confidentiality laws), the initial relationship between the two was rocky. But as Dr. Slamon went to great lengths to answer all her questions and she learned more about her husband’s disease and subsequent treatment, she took more of a liking to Slamon and developed an affinity for his work in breast cancer. The three became friends over the ensuing years and Lilly wanted to somehow pay back Slamon by helping him with his research. It’s not unheard of for grateful patients with financial means to want to “payback” their doctors given that in some cases the doctors prescribed lifesaving protocols.

After visiting Slamon’s research lab at UCLA, Tartikoff found her cause. She was “aghast” at his working conditions according to Robert Bazell’s account in his book, HER-2: The Making of Herceptin, a Revolutionary Treatment for Breast Cancer. Tartikoff wondered how he got anything accomplished since he spent so much time writing grants and had no secretary to answer the phones and help out. One of his staff workers even rode a bicycle to work instead of driving.

Like Bob Beall at the CFF, Lilly pulled every string possible to help Slamon get more funding. While there were sources of funding (such as the government, The National Cancer Institute etc.), they tended to move at a glacial pace. She wanted to speed things up and contacted everyone she knew, as well as her husband’s vast contacts. She was also quite aggressive in her tactics, asking one reluctant donor “Do you have a wife? Do you have daughters? Do they have breasts?” Slamon suggested she exercise more restraint.

She finally decided to enlist the help of an exceptionally wealthy and influential man—the high-profile leader of Revlon—Ronald Perelman. After a few meetings she became more aggressive and said to Perelman: “You make millions off of women…why don’t you give something back?” After several pitches to Perelman’s people that handled his charitable affairs (Lilly Tartikoff prepared and refined her pitch by having Slamon personally coach her on breast cancer research, his advances with HER-2, and how an immunological solution held the greatest promise) and a little arm twisting, Ron Perelman agreed to give several million to further Slamon’s work. From 1989 to 1997, Revlon gave over $12 million to the Revlon/UCLA Women’s Cancer Research Center.

By now you may be asking where Genentech was in all this. Great question. Revlon, Perelman and the Tartikoffs had no particular connection to Genentech. While Genentech did finally see the light with Herceptin, initially Slamon didn’t garner much support from Genentech as the company was shying away from cancer therapies after a couple of disappointing starts with other compounds. In fact throughout Herceptin’s clinical trials and initial success, Genentech reportedly avoided giving Slamon proper credit for his years of arduous work.

To be sure, there is plenty of credit to be shared in the Herceptin story. But unfortunately, one has to dig a little deeper to uncover Lilly Tartikoff’s contribution. The situation in some ways reminded me of the discovery of the Double Helix. James Watson and Francis Crick are widely known for uncovering the molecular structure of DNA. But a third person—Rosalind Franklin – was an unsung hero for many years and made major contributions to the discovery.

But in the end justice was served when one of Genentech’s senior scientists and leader of the HER-2 team proclaimed, “Without Denny Slamon and his Revlon backing, there would have been no Herceptin.” I would add that without Lilly Tartikoff’s extraordinary persistence, Revlon’s backing might never have materialized.

I love this story because it’s another great reminder that corporate America doesn’t always have to focus on stock prices, income statements and quarterly earnings guidance. Lilly Tartikoff and Ron Perelman are two exceedingly wealthy individuals who redirected money that could have been spent on hundreds of other “things.” I would wager that when they get to the end of their lives, they will not care so much about all their material possessions, the large portfolios or bank balances – those things are temporal. Much like the ending in the famous board game MONOPOLY, it doesn’t matter who has the most money when the game is over because it all goes back in the box. Houses, hotels and railroads, all go back in the box… bulging portfolios, utilities, even Boardwalk, Park Place and Marvin Gardens… all go back in the box.

The greatest benefit that comes from philanthropy, whether it is a corporation giving millions or an individual giving their time, talents and treasures, is that IT NEVER GOES BACK IN THE BOX but lives on for generations. Lilly Tartikoff and Ron Perelman can be secure in the knowledge that their philanthropic efforts contributed to a major advance in cancer treatment. That should bring great satisfaction given that tens of thousands of women each year are diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Instead of staring in the face of a life cut short, they can see hope and enjoy a life well lived.

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