Sue Desmond-Hellmann

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Sue Desmond-Hellmann
in 2010 in Seattle
Alma materUniversity of Nevada, Reno (B.S., M.D.)
University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health (M.A)
OccupationEx-CEO of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Known forRole in development of cancer drugs; Chancellorship of University of California, San Francisco
External audio
audio icon “Pandemic Perspectives: Interview with Sue Desmond-Hellmann”, May 14, 2020, Science History Institute.

Sue Desmond-Hellmann is an American oncologist and biotechnology leader who served as the Chief Executive Officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation from 2014–2020. 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.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

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.[2] 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.[3]


Desmond-Hellmann served as 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.[3][2] 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 president of product development, playing a role in the development of two of the first gene-targeted therapies for cancer, Avastin and Herceptin.[2][3][4] She left after the company was bought out by Roche Pharmaceuticals.[2][5] At that point her compensation was $8 million a year.[2]

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.[6] 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.[3] She served on the corporate board of Affymetrix from 2004 to 2009[3] and on the board of Procter & Gamble in 2012–13,[7]

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. Her starting salary was $450,000 a year.[2]

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.[8][9]

In January 2012 Desmond-Hellmann proposed to change the relationship between UCSF, a health sciences university, and the University of California as a whole.[10] 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.[2][5][11][12]

In March 2013 Desmond-Hellmann was appointed to the board of Facebook.[13]

On December 17, 2013, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it had selected Desmond-Hellmann as its next chief executive officer.[14][4] 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.[15]

Desmond-Hellmann served as UCSF Chancellor until March 2014, holding the Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Distinguished Professorship during her tenure.[3]

In 2017 Desmond-Hellmann became a member of the Prix Galien USA Committee,[16] succeeding Roy Vagelos as Chair of that Committee in 2018. She is also Chair of the Prix Galien International and Member of the Prix Galien Africa Committee.

In October 2019, Desmond-Hellmann departed the Board of Directors of Facebook.[17]

In December 2019, Desmond-Hellmann announced plans to step down from her role as BMGF CEO "for health and family reasons". Mark Suzman will leave his role of BMGF president of Global Policy & Advocacy and chief strategy officer to become the new BMGF CEO on February 1, 2020.[18]

On April 2, 2020, Pfizer announced that Desmond-Hellmann had been elected to the company's board of directors.[19]

Precision medicine based on Google Maps[edit]

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".[14] 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.[20] 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".[21]

Honors and plaudits[edit]

Desmond-Hellmann 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 2017 she gave the fifth annual Patrusky Lecture. In 2009, Desmond-Hellmann was honored with an Edison Achievement Award for her commitment to innovation throughout her career.

Personal life[edit]

Desmond-Hellmann married Nicholas Hellmann in 1987.[2]


  1. ^ Garde, Damian (17 December 2013). "Genentech's ex-R&D boss takes the reins at the Gates Foundation". Questex LLC. Fierce Biotech.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Grady, Denise (October 10, 2011). "Profiles in Science: An Innovator Shapes an Empire". The New York Times.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "UCSF profiles: Susan Desmond-Hellmann". University of California, San Francisco. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  4. ^ a b Ravelo, Jenny Lei (December 23, 2013). "Susan Desmond-Hellmann: A passionate innovator to lead the Gates Foundation". Devex.
  5. ^ a b "Susan Desmond-Hellmann - The 25 most influential people in biopharma today". FierceBiotech. February 8, 2012. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  6. ^ "Susan Desmond-Hellmann Elected as Trustee of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute". Howard Hughes Medical Institute. November 7, 2012.
  7. ^ Lambert, Diana; Koseff, Alexei (March 4, 2016). "UC Davis chancellor apologizes, will donate textbook stock to student scholarships". Sacramento Bee.
  8. ^ Wilson, Duff (June 30, 2010). "Chancellor's Slip Benefits Tobacco Research". The New York Times. Retrieved September 16, 2011.
  9. ^ Wilson, Duff (June 29, 2010). "University Chief Is Selling Tobacco Holdings". The New York Times. Retrieved September 16, 2011.
  10. ^ Asimov, Nanette (January 20, 2012). "UCSF seeks to ease ties with UC". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved January 26, 2012.
  11. ^ Cisneros, Lisa. "Chancellor Proposes New Approach to Secure UCSF's Financial Future". University of California, San Francisco. Retrieved January 26, 2012.
  12. ^ Krasny, Michael. "UCSF May Step Away From UC System". KQED Radio. Retrieved January 26, 2012.
  13. ^ Taylor, Colleen (March 6, 2013). "UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann Joins Facebook's Board, Adding Another Woman Alongside Sandberg". TechCrunch.
  14. ^ a b O'Brien, Jennifer (December 17, 2013). "UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann to Step Down". University of California, San Francisco.
  15. ^ Doughton, Sandi (June 29, 2014). "Tough bosses no problem for Gates Foundation's new CEO". Seattle Times.
  16. ^ "United States of America – Galien Foundation". Retrieved 2021-04-07.
  17. ^ "Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann Departs Facebook Board of Directors". October 30, 2019.
  18. ^ McKay, Betsy. "Gates Foundation CEO to Step Down". WSJ. Retrieved 2019-12-10.
  19. ^ "SUSAN DESMOND-HELLMANN ELECTED TO PFIZER'S BOARD OF DIRECTORS". Archived from the original on 2020-04-29. Retrieved 17 April 2020.
  20. ^ O'Brien, Jennifer (November 18, 2011). "NAS Report Calls for Building Biomedical Knowledge Network to Drive Precision Medicine". University of California, San Francisco.
  21. ^ O'Brien, Jennifer (April 11, 2012). "UCSF Chancellor Issues Call-To-Arms to Patient Advocates". University of California, San Francisco.

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