Ronald Cresswell obituary

Pharmaceutical researcher with a flair for business who brought a string of vital drugs to market

Last modified on Thu 10 Jun 2021 13.15 EDT

In 1960 the chemist Ronald Cresswell, who has died aged 86, had a lucky break. As a result of travelling from Glasgow to take up a post in New York he attended a conference of the American Chemical Society, met the biochemist George Hitchings, and they bonded over their mutual interest in folic acid.

Hitchings worked at the Burroughs Wellcome laboratory in Tuckahoe, north of New York city, where he and Gertrude Elion developed a wide range of medicines, eventually, in 1988, becoming Nobel laureates. When they offered Cresswell a job in 1962, it proved to be the opportunity of a lifetime for the young scientist.

Cresswell’s background in chemistry, coupled with leadership ability and a shrewd business vision, led to him becoming head of chemical development in 1964. He had found his metier, bringing a string of vital drugs to market.

In the 1960s he shepherded the compound allopurinol through the licensing process to create the gout drug Zyloric. Such were the profits that Burroughs Wellcome were able to expand, moving to state-of-the-art laboratories at Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Cresswell also spotted an opportunity for a Burroughs Wellcome antibiotic called trimethoprim. It had a synergistic action with a compound owned by the laboratory Roche, and Cresswell brokered a deal with Roche to create co-trimoxazole. Branded as Septrin, it is still a key antibiotic for pneumonia and many serious infections.

At Triangle Park, researchers in the 70s were studying antivirals and thought the substance acyclovir could be effective against the herpes virus. Thymidine, a component of DNA, was necessary for getting the drug to the virus. Cresswell managed to license it in so that his team could continue their research. He also worked to convince sceptical marketing and senior management that there really was a market for this fledgling new drug to treat genital herpes and infections in immune-compromised patients.

Pedro Cuatrecasas, who worked for Cresswell for decades, said his boss’s championing of the team’s work was vital. In the Journal of Clinical Investigation he wrote: “Most corporations’ top management does not understand the complexities of science, its mode of conduct or objectives … During the drug discovery and development of acyclovir (Zovirax), marketing insisted that there were ‘no markets’ for this compound. Most had hardly heard of genital herpes … Fortunately, at the time, research management [Cresswell] had the authority and knowledge to render decisions.”

He maintained that the same held for Cresswell’s strong insistence in the case of numerous other compounds. Vindication came when Zovirax, licensed in 1982, became Burroughs Wellcome’s most successful drug of all time, with annual sales of more than $1bn.

In the 80s Burroughs Wellcome studied other promising antivirals, including azidothymidine (AZT). It had originally been developed as a cancer drug, but was set aside when it did not work.

Cresswell wanted to fast-track testing it against the virus HIV, as the epidemic was gathering force. The US Food and Drug Administration had a rigorous but lengthy process for licensing drugs, and Cresswell had a successful all-night meeting in 1986 with Donald Regan, the White House chief of staff, to persuade him to speed up licensing to save lives.

At the time, Burroughs Wellcome were running a randomised controlled trial to test its efficacy, and after just 16 weeks decided to stop, because they were getting good results and to continue with the trial would have been unethical, delaying those in the control group getting the drug. In March 1987 AZT came to market with the brand name Retrovir after just 20 months’ development – a record.

In 1988 Cresswell was headhunted to run the research division of another pharmaceutical giant, Warner-Lambert, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was credited with bringing hope back to a demoralised workforce there.

A final coup for Cresswell was to bring the statin Lipitor to market in 1997. Scientists were about to shelve the compound CI-981 that they had spent eight years studying because in animal studies it was no better at lowering cholesterol than competing drugs. But under Cresswell’s leadership they found a way to manufacture it that increased its potency.

In 1995 Cresswell took part in one of the clinical trials, recording that his cholesterol dropped from 160 to 90. He said: “I faxed my results to my cardiologist. He faxed back: ‘You’ve got a winner.’” Nicknamed “turbostatin”, the drug, branded as Lipitor, became the world’s bestselling medicine.

Born in Glasgow, Ronald was the younger of two sons of Ambrose Cresswell, who managed a textile factory, and his wife, Joan (nee Dunlop). After attending Whitehill secondary school, he studied applied chemistry at the University of Glasgow, receiving his BSc in 1957 and PhD in 1960. In 1991 he was pleased to be made an honorary professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan.

In 1955, Cresswell met Sheila Livingstone, who worked for a bank. They married in Glasgow Cathedral in 1959, and the encounter the following year with Hitchings came as the result of a two-year contract at the Sloan Kettering Institute, the cancer research organisation based in New York.

Though Cresswell conducted his career in the US, living mainly in Ann Arbor, his Scottish identity remained important, and he returned every summer. He supported the First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor and set up the Cresswell Family Foundation to benefit the arts, as well as encouraging the companies he worked for to give to charities such as United Way.

Playing tennis and staying fit were of cardinal importance. One of his daughters noted: “He used to work out before people used that term,” and he practised pilates until the month before his death.

He is survived by Sheila, their five daughters, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, and his elder brother, John.

Ronald Morton Cresswell, pharmaceutical scientist and executive, born 30 September 1934; died 16 April 2021

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