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Don Sellers ’66 spearheaded the introduction into China of a drug for hepatitis B

Throughout his 35-year career in pharmaceuticals, Don Sellers ’66 has had one driving passion — doing the right thing as best he can. That principle led him to conduct a groundbreaking clinical trial that had a positive impact on millions of Chinese.

Sellers resisted corporate constraints at SciClone Pharmaceuticals Inc. in the mid-’90s to begin the project and the result was Zadaxin, an immune system stimulant active against hepatitis B. He was SciClone’s CEO for a decade.

“I was conducting clinical trials, testing an immune system modulator which resulted in the approval of a drug for hepatitis B, an infection affecting tens of millions in China but almost no one in the U.S.,” says Sellers, who is fluent in Mandarin and first visited the country in 1979 as part of a group of scientists exploring traditional Chinese medicines. “This was very much a personal initiative inside a corporate frame of reference not wanting to go down that path. The result was very positive, contributing to the well-being of countless people as well as establishing a good cash flow for the company, as the product is still one of the leading imported products in China.

“The board of the company was largely from academic medicine and had wanted the full attention of mental and financial resources applied to U.S.-based clinical studies. But the company had the financial resources and know-how to do both. From my experience, I knew it was the right thing to do. A negotiation ensued, I got my way, and the result was the successful introduction of Zadaxin into China. The initiative saved many, many lives over the next decade and generated tens of millions of dollars for the company.”

Sellers, who began his career at Pfizer, is now CEO of CardioPharma, Inc., a pharmaceutical start-up focused on cardiovascular disease. The firm has global rights to patents from Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. He’s found that he can make a difference, even if he’s not with a name-brand company like his first employer.

“In 1989, I was recruited by a part of the Pritzker organization and, through that, realized one does not need to be with the big players to make a big impact or be successful,” he says. “This transition led to my entry into the world of small, public biotech firms. The large pharmaceutical companies have a name that speaks instantly and effectively about their credibility; discussions with governments and medical people are often quite simple. A small pharmaceutical company has to be constantly prepared to justify and defend its clinical data and medical rationales.”

If Sellers’ career trajectory has proved anything, it’s that he’s always up for a challenge. A former Green Beret, he was among three people in his 800-member officer candidate battalion to earn a commission in intelligence. After training as a counter-intelligence special agent, he was sent to the 8th Special Forces in Panama, where he learned Spanish.

“After a while, I was promoted to captain and sent to Vietnam, where I learned French, working most of the time in the Southeast Asia region in mufti,” he explains. “The most significant overall experience in all of that was a vivid understanding that most of the world did not share or even understand U.S. values and vice versa. This experience convinced me to be part of the international community and learn more about the world. I separated from the service in late 1970 and matriculated in the Thunderbird Graduate School of International Management, where I studied Japanese to complement my Mandarin.”

His global travels and experiences with other cultures clarified the value of the history graduate’s Lafayette education.

“While at Lafayette, I never realized or appreciated that I was being taught how to learn and the want of learning,” says Sellers. “Seeing firsthand the impact of ignorance and narrow minds, I determined that as much as possible, good enough was not good enough, and there is always something more to learn. This mindset became my guide for doing business and for living.”

Categorized in: Alumni