Making the jump
As the healthcare pendulum swings, often new opportunities appear for entrepreneurial pharmacists. One such opportunity presented itself years ago to alum Brad Holmgren (COP B.S. ’76), and he had the foresight to envision the change and the courage to act.
In the early 1990s, Holmgren was director of pharmacy for Samaritan Hospital in St. Paul, Minn. As such, he saw significant change happening in the healthcare industry, with hospitals going through consolidations and fee restructuring to shift their focus from inpatient to outpatient care.
“I began to think about what I felt was a megatrend in healthcare, where inpatient was going to become less important, and the focus more outpatient driven,” says Holmgren. He also foresaw ultimately diagnostic services would become more important, with medicine moving in the direction of earlier intervention, so he looked for a progressive career opportunity.
Holmgren joined Syncor Corporation, supplier of radiopharmaceuticals to hospitals, as a nuclear pharmacist, and shortly thereafter came a serendipitous career jump that enamored him with a brand new technology, setting in motion a series of events which would take him around the world and stretch him in ways he didn’t think possible.
When Syncor sought an employee to get involved with a new pilot venture involving a new specialty area of radiopharmaceuticals imaging technology called PET (positron emission tomography), Holmgren saw the opportunity as a niche by which he could distinguish himself. Of course, Holmgren did not know then that PET imaging technology was destined to become one of the most rapidly growing health imaging technologies in the world.
Moving to Syncor’s initial PET cyclotron in Phoenix, Holmgren opened the world’s first pharmacy-licensed and pharmacist-led PET cyclotron center. There, he and his pharmacist team compounded PET radiopharmaceuticals, distributing them to pioneering hospitals, clinics and research centers utilizing the then-new PET scanner equipment.
Holmgren notes PET started as a cardio imaging technology, proving its worth in distinguishing whether a heart patient was a transplant or surgical candidate. However, Holmgren and his team believed if they could prove the reliability of PET, it would also make a significant difference in other patient care areas, such as the diagnosis and staging of cancer.
This has proven to be the case, and PET studies are now used worldwide. Holmgren notes PET technology often offers the best diagnostic information in cancer. “It can result in devastating information but ultimately improved patient care,” says Holmgren. “A better diagnosis means a patient can be correctly treated earlier in the course of the disease, for example upstaging cancer from what was hoped to be a solitary tumor into a metastatic disease, which dramatically changes the treatment plan.”
In 1996, Syncor merged with CTI, an early developer of the cyclotron equipment used to produce PET isotopes, as well as the PET scanning equipment used diagnostically in hospitals and clinics. However, the planned merger brought an unforeseen change, as Syncor also decided to discontinue their start-up PET pilot, titled PETNET.
Holmgren was passionate that the PETNET program not end. Knowing financing would have to be secured immediately in order to keep the team and the PET venture intact, he quickly spearheaded an outreach effort to a group of physicians and investors experienced in PET technology, and as a result garnered the necessary private investment funds to carry on the PET venture.
The new PETNET thus continued and grew, becoming CTI/PETNET upon the buyout by CTI, and then ultimately Siemens/PETNET when the multinational firm Siemens bought CTI. Holmgren has been integral to PETNET’s success throughout this growth, expanding PET services to hospital and clinics and research institutions worldwide. He currently serves as vice president for business development for Siemens/PETNET.
In addition to its clinical use, Holmgren notes PET technology is also helping streamline the drug development process. Pharmaceutical companies are able to accelerate the development of drug compounds by PET-labeling their compounds as leads, then injecting the PET-labeled compounds into animals or humans to efficiently trace the ADME processes externally via PET imaging. By speeding up the drug-development process, Holmgren notes PET is saving pharmaceutical companies hundreds of millions of dollars annually and accelerating drug approvals by up to four years.
Taking his passion abroad, in 2001 Holmgren moved to London to set up PET facilities to supply European hospitals and clinics. In 2005 he repatriated back to the U.S., and in 2009 Holmgren is again packing his bags, as he relocates to Singapore to help expand PETNET's radiopharmaceutical network in Asia.
In addition to his PETNET duties, Holmgren has participated in the American Pharmaceutical Association, Society of Nuclear Medicine, Academy of Molecular Imaging, European Association of Nuclear Medicine, United States Pharmacopeia and the PET Compounding Standards Committee. He has also been active in CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), Interfaith Council, Big Brother/Big Sister, Partners In Health, Doctors Without Borders, and International Rescue Committee. Brad and his wife Robin live in Singapore. They have two adult children, Alyssa, a healthcare policy advisor in Portland, Ore., and Joseph, a psychiatrist in New York City.
This Featured Leader is part of an ongoing series from the Center for Leading Healthcare Change that profiles pharmacy leaders in the community.