The ‘Iron Man’ of Vifor Pharma
The late Dr Peter Geisser was a key figure on the St Gallen site for over 40 years. First, as apprentice, then as research leader, later driving the research effort for more than 20 years and finally, after retirement, becoming the company’s consultant and scientific expert. It is not an exaggeration to say that Vifor Pharma would not be what it is today if it had not been for Peter Geisser. Etienne Jornod, Executive Chairman, likes to point out, Vifor Pharma is a pharmaceutical company “based on nothing but water, sugar and iron”. The fact that we have been able to build a global specialisation on a foundation of three apparently unpromising commodities owes a huge debt to Peter’s passion, intellect, perseverance, discipline and mastery of his subject.
One of Peter’s first big breakthroughs was on Maltofer® in the 1970s. Fresh from his doctoral thesis on complex metal chemistry, he was assigned to develop a chewable tablet formulation. In the process, he and his team were also responsible for standardising Maltofer® to provide the product consistency that we have today. Interviewed for the product’s 40th anniversary, Peter was passionate about his favourite subject of safe and effective iron delivery. “It is a fantastic opportunity to be able to treat iron deficiency. People everywhere – particularly women and children – need something better than conventional oral iron preparations. We have something better – and it is very hard to copy because iron complex chemistry is very difficult. There are millions of possibilities for creating a solution. It’s like playing chess. You have to think how to put things in the right sequence to win.”
Throughout his career, Peter was a tireless champion for iron therapy. Back in 1991, parent company Galenica had been all set to get rid of the Hausmann-Vifor iron products. It was Peter’s unshakable belief – and Etienne Jornod’s faith in Peter – that saved them. More than quarter of a century later, our portfolio of iron-based products treats millions of patients around the world. Our story would have been very different without him.
Transforming ideas into successful products
Part of Peter’s success lay in the fact that his approach was always firmly rooted in a clear definition of patient need. Talking in recent years about the development of Ferinject®, he recalled, “The idea for a new i.v. iron product came from feedback from clinics. There was evidence of adverse effects and dose limitations with existing products on the market. Most patients with anaemia need between 1,000 and 1,500 mg iron. The need to develop a new i.v. iron product was obvious. It had to be able to be administered quickly and at high doses and have as few adverse effects as possible.” So began an exhaustive three-year process to synthesize and test over 1,000 molecules to arrive at ferric carboxymaltose, the active ingredient of Ferinject®. It then took another five years of work to prove that this formula met our high expectations for efficacy and side effect profile.
Peter could also be highly creative. Head of Chemical & Analytical Development Erik Philipp was a long-time colleague. He remembers accompanying Peter on a visit to B.Braun back in 1994. On the table, a deal to manufacture a phosphate binder for dialysis patients. During discussions, it emerged that B.Braun’s substance was too expensive for oral use so that was the end of the project. Far from being discouraged, Peter was stimulated by this set-back. “We spent the train trip home brain storming about how we could manufacture such a preparation more cost-efficiently. By the time we got off the train, we had the basis for developing Velphoro®, our own phosphate binder that is now marketed in many countries, including the US and EU.” It was a typical example of how Peter could transform ideas into successful products.
A sense of ownership
Throughout his career, Peter was totally committed to ‘his’ people and products. His strong sense of ownership, combined with a decisive and forthright character, meant that if Peter felt something needed doing, he did it. St Gallen Site Manager Hans-Martin Müller remembers how, in his first year with Vifor International as Production Manager, he took few days’ holiday in Amsterdam. At the time, some researchers – including Peter Geisser – stuck to strict research parameters that were much narrower than the official specification. While he was away, Peter shut down production; Hans-Martin returned to find 15 operatives with nothing to do!
One of Hans-Martin’s first responsibilities in 1999 was to codify the manufacturing process to comply with increasing and more demanding regulations. Peter, of course, was the main source of information, but at that stage, much of it was still in his head, so he took the time to commit his knowledge to paper, creating the site’s production ‘bible’. Hans-Martin also recalls that Peter had a hard time being tactful with so-called ‘experts’! “It took him a little while to realise you can’t tell an FDA inspector he’s wrong!”
Having retired in 2010, Peter still worked around two days a week as the company’s consultant and scientific expert. He remained until the end an invaluable source of knowledge on all things iron, giving input for presentations, contributing to books and papers, always happy to help with answering questions for registrations. He was an excellent company ambassador, speaking at industry events and, for many years, his talks were a highlight of visits to St Gallen. Hans-Martin remembers, “Peter had a gift for convincing people with demonstrations and easy-to-understand experiments. In his white lab coat, with his bushy hair and infectious enthusiasm, he really looked the part of the crazy scientist! And he was always pleased to do it.”
With more than 70 publications and 20 patents to his name, Peter Geisser has left his mark on iron chemistry, iron therapy and parenteral nutrition. And he has left an enduring mark on his friends and colleagues around the world, inside and outside the company. His informed mind and incisive delivery will be missed. If you are visiting St Gallen, you will notice that the wall of the staircase in the new packaging facility has been painted with people’s silhouettes. Among them, the unmistakable outline of Peter in his lab coat, peering into a flask: every inch the researcher. As he would no doubt wish to be remembered.
A life in research…
1961-1965 Laboratory technician apprenticeship with Hausmann Laboratories in St. Gallen
1965-1968 Chemical Engineering degree from the Ingenieurschule, Winterthur’ Switzerland
1968-1972 PhD in Chemistry at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland
1972-1974 Post Doctorate in Organic Synthetic Chemistry at the University of Bern
1974-1986 Leader, Synthesis and Galenics, R & D Department, Hausmann Laboratories, St. Gallen
1986-1989 Head of R & D, Hausmann Laboratories Inc., St. Gallen
Vice-director from 1987
1989-1992 Scientific Expert and Head of the new Hausmann/Vifor Chemistry and Biochemistry
1991-1992 Member of the Executive Board of Hausmann Laboratories
1992-2001 Head of Research and member of Vifor International Executive Board
2001-2006 Scientific Director and member of Vifor International Executive Board
2006-2008 Head of R&D, Scientific Director and member of Vifor International Executive Board
2008-2010 Scientific Director of Vifor Pharma, Vifor International
2010-2018 Consultant and Scientific Expert