Biotech company executive was co-founder of firm that made Cialis


George B. Rathmann, a chemist and renowned biotechnology pioneer who helped develop drugs that energized anemia patients and invigorated the sex lives of impotent men, died April 22 at his home in Paolo Alto, Calif. He was 84. (Courtesy of Amgen/COURTESY OF AMGEN)

George B. Rathmann, a chemist who led and helped transform Amgen into one of the world’s largest biotechnology firms in the 1980s and who later co-founded the company that manufactured the anti-impotence drug Cialis, died April 22 at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 84.

He had complications from kidney disease, said his son James Rathmann.

Forbes magazine once called Dr. Rathmann “the Bill Gates of biotechnology” for his success in turning scientific research into an immensely profitable venture as chief executive and president of California-based Amgen from 1980 to 1990.

He was often described as a rare scientist who also possessed a sharp business mind. At Amgen, he oversaw the development of Epogen, a drug that stimulates red blood cell production and is used to energize patients with chronic anemia.

After leaving Amgen, Dr. Rathmann helped found Icos, a biotechnology firm in Bothell, Wash. He personally secured a crucial investment from Gates, the Microsoft co-founder and billionaire. Icos’s signature product was Cialis, a vasodilator that induces erections. The pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly bought out Icos in the mid-2000s.

Epogen and Cialis have improved millions of lives and have reaped billions of dollars in sales.

George Blatz Rathmann was born Dec. 25, 1927, in Milwaukee. He was a 1948 chemistry graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. In 1950, he received a master’s degree in physical chemistry from Princeton University, where he also earned a doctorate in 1952. He joined 3M, where he worked on X-ray film and other projects.

One day at a 3M lab, Dr. Rathmann and some other researchers were experimenting with a new compound when one of the scientists spilled some of the mixture on her shoe. While attempting to wash the shoe, the group realized the water was beading off the top.

Discovering the mixture’s unique water-repelling qualities, they perfected it into Scotchgard.

He was serving as vice president of research and development for Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories when he was recruited to Amgen in 1980 by a group of venture capitalists.

The biotechnology start-up, in Thousand Oaks, Calif., shared a building with a ball-bearing company and an evangelical choral group. Under Dr. Rathmann’s direction, Amgen turned into a behemoth that dominates its field.

Amgen’s early efforts involved engineering proteins to help chickens rapidly gain weight and creating a synthetic substitute for indigo, which is used to dye denim jeans blue.

The fate of Amgen changed one morning before dawn in the early 1980s when Dr. Rathmann arrived at the office and found the lights in a lab had been left on overnight.

He walked in to flip the switch when he encountered researcher Fu-Kuen Lin. Lin had been working long hours on a project that many at Amgen considered an impossible mission: isolating the human gene for erythropoietin.

Minuscule amounts of the erythropoietin hormone are naturally produced inside the kidneys. After coursing through the bloodstream, the hormone lands inside bone marrow and triggers the production of erythrocytes, or red blood cells.

Patients suffering from kidney failure often have low levels of red blood cells, which leads to chronic anemia and debilitating fatigue. At the time, the only relief for kidney failure involved dialysis to flush their system of toxins, and frequent and dangerous blood transfusions to treat the anemia.

Lin told Dr. Rathmann that his goal was to find which gene — among thousands — leads to red blood cell production so that he could create a synthetic version.

Dr. Rathmann already had approved spending millions of dollars on projects that had led to dead ends. But Dr. Rathmann gambled the survival of Amgen on Lin and his research, and it paid off exponentially.

Once Lin had isolated the gene, he spliced the DNA into the ovarian cells of Chinese hamsters. In turn, those cells became microscopic erythropoietin pumps. After testing, the drug was released in June 1989. Using Epogen, also called EPO, kidney-failure patients reported having boundless energy. Infused with fresh red blood cells, their pallid skin became pink again.

“A concern of ours from the earliest days is that we have been trying to make a dream happen, and a dream that doesn’t come true is called hype,” Dr. Rathmann told the New York Times in 1988. But when anemic patients are “brought back to normal life” while being treated with Epogen, he admitted that “you know you’ve got a miracle.”

Dr. Rathmann suffered from kidney disease later in life and took Epogen to relieve his chronic anemia.

In recent years, EPO has come under scrutiny from the sporting community as a number of athletes have used the drug to enhance performance. U.S. cyclist Tyler Hamilton returned his Olympic gold medal in 2011 after admitting he used EPO in a practice known as blood doping.

Survivors include Dr. Rathmann’s wife of 61 years, the former Frances Joy Anderson, of Palo Alto; five children, James Rathmann of Bonita Springs, Fla., Margaret Rathmann of Nicasio, Calif., Laura Jean Rathmann of St. Paul, Minn., Sally Kadifa of Palo Alto and Richard Rathmann of Annapolis; and 13 grandchildren.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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