Neil Clendeninn ’71: The Multi-Career Man
by Faraneh Carnegie ’05
On his professional journey, Neil Clendeninn has taken full advantage of the limitless possibilities of a liberal arts education, taking him from Wesleyan to Burroughs-Wellcome and Aguron Pharmaceuticals, next to the New School of Architecture and Design, then on to Hawaii.
He arrived at Wesleyan like many first-year students with myriad academic interests. In addition to pursuing his interest in the sciences, he took courses in psychology, classics, and architecture. Though he briefly considered a career as an architect, Clendeninn ultimately decided to pursue an MD and a PhD in pharmacology. His interest in cancer research led him to finish his medical training at the National Cancer Institute, U.S. National Institutes of Health. He then pursued an impressive career in the pharmaceuticals industry. During this time, he remained at the forefront of HIV and cancer research, most notably leading a team of researchers in the development of Viracept, an HIV protease inhibitor.
Five years ago, when Aguron merged with Pfizer, Clendeninn decided to embark on the next phase of his life. He attended the New School of Architecture and Design, focusing on courses in urban planning. While writing his thesis on Lihue, a major city on the island of Kaua’i, Hawaii, he cultivated his interest in sustainable development and a love for the island, which has defined this second phase of his life. He now lives on a 15-acre farm in Hanalei with his wife, Mary, and his children Martha, Anderson, and Dallis, and is working with local officials toward sustainable regional development. Clendeninn still finds time to lend his expertise to the board of directors for OncoGenex, a Vancouver-based biotechnology company developing cancer therapeutics designed to inhibit tumor cells’ resistance. He is also a consultant to other biotech companies and serves on the Wesleyan Science Advisory Council.
Tell us about your Wesleyan experience?
Neil Clendeninn: I think that Wesleyan was one of the cornerstones of my development. I really enjoyed my time there. I had some great professors at Wesleyan who encouraged my interest in research. Though I majored in biology and chemistry, I went to Wesleyan thinking I wanted to be an architect and I have always wondered how my life would have been different if I had pursued that first.
Did you pursue a career in pharmaceuticals immediately after Wesleyan?
NC: No. After Wesleyan, I went to New York University for a degree in medicine. I became interested in cancer research. I had many cancer patients, and I found the research fascinating. I completed my residency at the National Cancer Institute and then went to North Carolina to work for Burroughs-Wellcome, a wonderful experience. The company was owned by the one of the largest private donating foundations in the United Kingdom, the Wellcome Foundation. I was given many opportunities to work with teams developing new compounds. I enjoyed the process of working on a team. A team pushes the development of a compound through in the most efficient manner. At Burroughs-Wellcome, I decided to pursue a career in the pharmaceuticals industry instead of in academic medicine. I realized early on that by working in the industry, I would have the opportunity to affect the lives of millions of patients.
Did you feel that having a liberal arts education determined how you approached your work?
NC: Definitely. I took many science courses at Wesleyan, but I also tried to explore other disciplines. Throughout my career, I was mainly involved in political research. At Burroughs-Wellcome and Agouron, I led teams of individuals, incorporating compounds already discovered, and tried to figure out how to adapt them for widespread use. This is usually a long process spent working with experts in a variety of fields. We work together to come up with innovative ways to demonstrate our findings. We developed Viracept in a novel way. Early on, AIDS clinical trials were set up so that some patients received treatment and others did not; these are called “body bag studies.” Our team eventually treated all the patients during our studies. We monitored the patient’s viral load. A patient whose viral load increased would be switched to the active arm. This occurred mostly in patients taking the placebo arm. Once on the active arm, the virus would go down. So all the patients ended up being treated, and we proved the effectiveness of the drug.
You have been instrumental in the creation of drugs that treat major diseases. What is keeps them from the areas that need them?
NC: This is a somewhat controversial area because in this country we pay for much of the work done in the pharmaceutical industry. It takes approximately $.5 billion to get one drug on the market, which is why the cost of drugs is so high. Companies need profits to begin researching new drugs. In the case of AIDS drugs, what often happens is that the virus quickly builds resistance to the drug. In the United States, the healthcare system is such that a patient can come in periodically and be tested for a resistance virus early on; in other parts of the world with minimal healthcare, patients can’t be seen regularly. Patients do not always have consistent access to either the drug or the doctors and therefore they often develop resistance. This results in mutations of the virus that then need to be treated with new drugs.
So are you saying that the access to some of these medications may actually aggravate the existing crisis?
NC: Exactly! Healthcare in a lot of the world is not what it should be. Diseases spread rapidly around the world. Someone develops a resistant AIDS virus in Africa, and a few years later, the virus can be found in the United States.
You’ve retired from daily work in the pharmaceuticals industry. What are you doing now?
NC: I have gone into two directions—farming and architecture. I have 15 acres in Hawaii that I am cultivating.
What crops are you planting?
NC: I am getting ready to plant tropical hardwood. It is a good way to create a manmade environment that can be harvested without having to deplete the tropical rainforest. I would like to say one day that my 1,000 trees have saved 1,000 Amazon trees from being cut down.
I would also like to plant vanilla, which is actually an orchid that grows on a vine. Once it flowers, you have to fertilize the flower manually. Then it becomes the bean. It takes the plant two to three years to mature and another eight months for the bean to grow and another eight months for the bean to ferment and ripen. It is almost a five-year process for the plant to begin being productive.
What interested you in sustainable agriculture?
NC: The land. I was thinking that I could just allow it to grow wild or I could plant something useful. I can’t say that I am a real farmer. I am a city boy, so I can’t say I get my hands in the dirt, but I think these are interesting crops. I love the flavor of vanilla, and it is a lucrative crop. Orchids are easy because they don’t require soil, and they get their nutrients from the rain.
You are very fortunate to have had the opportunity to have three very full careers.
NC: Well, I think that more people should think about doing that. Back in the 1940s and 1950s people did one job until they were 65 and hoped to live until they were 70, five years after they retired. Now you can start on one career and if given the opportunity to switch, you can have another 15 to 20 years of working. I am encouraging my kids to think of college as a place to find something they want to do and then do it but to always keep in the back of their minds that they could do something else later in life.
Through the Wesleyan Science Advisory Council you have been able to work toward improving the academic experience for the University’s students. Is there a particular aspect of your work on the committee that you feel most passionate about?
NC: I would like to see the sciences become attractive to more incoming and current students. I am also interested in mentoring and encouraging students currently enrolled in the sciences. Wesleyan used to be called WesTech because of its prowess in the sciences. It has lost that outside recognition. And why aren’t we talking about it? I had great experiences working in the labs at Wesleyan; I was given access and support that I wouldn’t have received at a larger institution. This council was created to ensure that Wesleyan continues to develop the science departments. Most of us on the council really would like the trustees to make a commitment to the area. Wesleyan’s classrooms and labs need a lot of equipment.