Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, is an oncologist and biotechnology leader who is the Chief Executive Officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She was previously Chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), the first woman to hold the position, and Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Distinguished Professor, and before that president of product development at Genentech, where she played a role in the development of the first gene-targeted cancer drugs, Avastin and Herceptin.
Early life and education
Desmond-Hellmann grew up in Reno, Nevada, as one of seven children. Her father worked as a pharmacist and her mother was an English teacher. She earned her bachelor of science degree in pre-medicine and her medical degree from the University of Nevada, Reno and received her residency training at UCSF, where she served as chief resident. She is board-certified in internal medicine and medical oncology, and also holds a master's degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.
Desmond-Hellmann was an associate adjunct professor of epidemiology and biostatistics At UCSF. She joined the UCSF medical faculty at the time of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, and therefore worked on Kaposi's sarcoma. Beginning in 1989 both she and her husband, an infectious disease doctor, spent two years as visiting faculty at the Uganda Cancer Institute, studying and treating patients with infectious diseases and Kaposi’s sarcoma in a project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. She then spent two years in private practice.
Returning to clinical research, Desmond-Hellmann became associate director of clinical cancer research at Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Institute. While there, she was the project team leader for Taxol.
In 1995 she joined Genentech as a clinical scientist; she was named chief medical officer the following year, and in 1999 became executive vice president of development and product operations. From March 2004 through April 2009 she was chief of product development, playing a role in the development of two of the first gene-targeted therapies for cancer, Avastin and Herceptin. She left when the company was bought out.
From 2005 to 2008, Desmond-Hellmann served a three-year term as a member of the American Association for Cancer Research board of directors, and from 2001 to 2009, she served on the executive committee of the board of directors of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. She was elected a trustee of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 2012. In July 2008, she was appointed to the California Academy of Sciences Board of Trustees. She also served a three-year term on the Economic Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco beginning in January 2009. She served on the corporate board of Affymetrix from 2004 to 2009 and on the board of Procter & Gamble in 2012–13, and in 2013 was appointed to the board of Facebook.
After being invited to apply, on August 3, 2009, Desmond-Hellmann became Chancellor of UCSF, the first woman to hold the position and the first drawn from outside academia. She served until March 2014, holding the Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Distinguished Professorship during her tenure.
In June 2010, one day after being questioned by The New York Times, Desmond-Hellmann sold her stock in the Altria Group, which owns Phillip Morris USA and other tobacco companies, and subsequently donated $134,000 to the tobacco control center at UCSF. She said that many of her holdings had been purchased on her behalf by her stockbroker and that she was too busy to oversee all her investments, although she had written the stock on her financial disclosure statement.
In January 2012 Desmond-Hellmann proposed to change the relationship between UCSF, a health sciences university, and the University of California as a whole. She proposed creating partnerships between UCSF and private pharmaceutical corporations and other sources of funding, in order to increase its revenues and solve its projected financial difficulties.
In 2011, Desmond-Hellmann co-chaired a National Academy of Sciences committee that recommended creating a Google maps-like data network aimed at developing more diagnostics and treatments tailored to individual patients — a concept known as "precision medicine". The so-called "knowledge network" would integrate the wealth of data emerging on the molecular basis of disease with information on environmental factors and patients’ electronic medical records and would allow scientists to share emerging research findings faster, thereby accelerating the development of tailored treatments. It also would allow clinicians to make more informed decisions about treatments, reduce health care costs and ultimately improve care. The NAS report, titled "Toward Precision Medicine: Building a Knowledge Network for Biomedical Research and a New Taxonomy of Disease", was described by Keith Yamamoto, Vice Chancellor for Research at UCSF, as "the most important National Academy of Sciences Framework Analysis since that advisory body recommended that the United States go forward with the Human Genome Project".
On December 17, 2013, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it had selected Desmond-Hellmann as its next chief executive officer. She assumed her role on May 1, 2014, the first head of the foundation to be neither a former Microsoft executive nor a personal friend of the Gates', and the first physician.
Desmond-Hellmann was named Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Woman of the Year for 2006 and named to the Biotech Hall of Fame in 2007. She was listed among Fortune magazine’s Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Business in 2001 and from 2003 to 2008. From 2004 to 2006, the Wall Street Journal listed Desmond-Hellmann as one of its Women to Watch.
In October 2010, Desmond-Hellmann was elected a member of the Institute of Medicine and inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In April 2012, she was honored with the Commonwealth Club of California’s 2012 Distinguished Citizen Award for her leadership at UCSF and Genentech.
Desmond-Hellmann married Nicholas Hellmann in 1987.