20
May
2024

SynBio and AI for Discovery: David Younger and Randolph Lopez on The Long Run

Today’s guests on The Long Run are the co-founders of Seattle-based A-Alpha Bio — David Younger and Randolph Lopez.

David Younger, co-founder and CEO, A-Alpha Bio

David is the CEO and Randolph is the chief technology officer.

The company was founded in 2017 as a spinout from the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design. The company has built a platform for doing high-volume synthetic biology to make protein constructs that are the basis for evaluating protein-protein interactions at scale. Those interactions are then analyzed with machine learning to identify drug candidates with certain optimal characteristics – for instance, the ability to bind with a certain epitope with high affinity.

A-Alpha has sought to apply the work to its own drug candidates, and on projects with partners. Gilead Sciences has sought help with identifying long-acting biologic therapies for HIV. A-Alpha has also announced partnerships with Amgen, Bristol Myers Squibb and Kymera Therapeutics to develop molecular glue therapies.

Randolph Lopez, co-founder and chief technology officer, A-Alpha Bio

In this conversation, we spoke about the technology idea, but also how David and Randolph met, how their skills meshed, and how they thought about starting and sequentially building the company as a couple of young scientific entrepreneurs who weren’t automatically on speed-dial with the top VC firms of Kendall Square and Sand Hill Road.

 

Before we get started,

I’m looking for a business representative. This person will be asked to sell group subscriptions to Timmerman Report, sell sponsorship packages to The Long Run podcast, and negotiate my speaking engagements. This position will pay a base salary plus commissions. The ideal candidate is someone seeking to grow their knowledge and network in the biotech industry. Interested? Email me at luke@timmermanreport.com

Now please join me and David Younger and Randolph Lopez on The Long Run.

20
May
2024

Timmerman Traverse Eclipses $10M for Cancer, Poverty, and Sickle Cell Disease

The Timmerman Traverse campaigns have now catalyzed the biotech community to give back more than $10 million to tackle cancer, poverty, and sickle cell disease.

It’s a moment to celebrate.

These biotech community drives have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

They’ve raised awareness, corralled funds, and stitched together a network of meaningful relationships.  

More than 120 people have become part of the alumni network since these campaigns began in 2017. Another 45 people are currently in training. 

These people have propelled the careers of young cancer researchers with bold ideas. They’ve supported programs to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and attracted a diverse new generation of biotech professionals. They’re pouring resources into a traditionally neglected disease – sickle cell disease.

Through all the mental, physical and emotional heavy lifting required in these campaigns, folks have formed deep and lasting friendships.

Some have started new companies. Spearheaded new initiatives. Opened doors for each other. They’ve discovered new sources of joy and fellowship. Many have become friends for life.

The best part? These Timmerman Traverse campaigns are still in the early days.

Thanks to all who have participated, donated, sponsored, and cheered. Special thanks to the staff at the main beneficiary organizations: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Life Science Cares, Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, and Sickle Forward. And to Eric Murphy and my partners at Alpine Ascents International.

Let’s all keep climbing higher.

Luke

13
May
2024

Here’s The Skinny on Four New GLP-1 Podcasts

David Shaywitz

GLP-1 medicines are obviously having a real moment – medically and culturally. 

These once-weekly injectables, which reduce appetite and result in significant, long-lasting (so long as you’re taking them…) weight loss, have been demonstrated to have a number of important health benefits beyond simply shedding pounds. 

In March, Novo Nordisk’s semaglutide (Wegovy) was approved by the FDA for its ability to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from cardiovascular disease in patients who are obese or overweight.  

This new wave of effective weight loss drugs has elevated the pharma companies that make them, Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly. Novo Nordisk reported $1.3 billion in Wegovy sales in the first quarter of 2024 – about double the amount from the same period a year earlier. Eli Lilly’s rival GLP-1 and GIP receptor agonist, tirzepatide (Zepbound), recorded an extraordinary $517 million in US sales in the first quarter of 2024, in the first full quarter after being approved by the FDA in November.

The progress and momentum has also generated significant interest from other pharmas suddenly seeking to enter a therapeutic area that they have long been avoiding.

The availability of an apparently safe category of medicines that address a key societal preoccupation – obesity – has reverberations that have been felt everywhere from the Oscars to the diet industry – and, potentially, many other sectors of the economy.

Many companies focused on weight management, for example, have decided that instead of competing directly with GLP-1 medicines, it makes more sense to incorporate these medicines into their offerings (eg Weight Watchers) or to position themselves as an off-ramp (Virta).   

On a personal level, I appreciate their motivation. After significant success on Virta (discussed here, here), I’ve found it increasingly difficult to sustain (a common experience, it seems). As my weight, sadly, starts to creep back up despite regular exercise, I find myself actively contemplating a switch to GLP-1s, especially as I encounter more and more physician colleagues experiencing success with these powerful medicines.

Keeping up with the GLP-1 story can be difficult; fortunately, several recently-released podcasts, each with a slightly different focus, can help get you up to speed quickly – ideally while you’re exercising.

Ground Truths: Eric Topol interviews Daniel Drucker

Let’s start with the science. Here, the one person you’d most want to speak with is endocrinologist and physician-scientist Daniel Drucker, who has spent his career focused on incretins – molecules such as GIP-1 (glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide) and GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide-1) that potentiate the secretion of insulin after meals.

Eric Topol (left) and Daniel Drucker (right) on the Ground Truths podcast.

His website, glucagon.com, has for years served as a central repository of information in this field, including the many foundational studies and integrative reviews authored by Drucker and his colleagues.

In the latest episode of famed cardiologist Eric Topol’s invariably interesting podcast Ground Truths, he asks Drucker key questions about the underlying science.  What I found particularly striking was how much is still unknown.  (This seems like another example of a phenomenon I’ve frequently encountered, where real experts are comfortable enough to recognize and acknowledge the vast extent of our collective ignorance; in contrast, many with a more tenuous grasp of the material tend to present it with more certitude and bluster.)

The entire, relatively short (36-minute) podcast is an obvious must for anyone interested in a data-driven, grounded, sophisticated perspective on GLP-1s, but several points of particular relevance for readers of TR and this column include:

  • Subtle biology of GLP-1: Drucker say, “if we take GLP-1 away or we take the receptor away, you don’t really develop diabetes without GLP-1. You don’t really gain a lot of weight without GLP-1. So physiologically it’s not that important.”  In other words, for all our interest in leveraging genetics to find new drugs, GLP-1 is an example of how this approach can be limiting – the pharmacological effects of GLP-1 might not have been predicted by extrapolating from observed physiology and pathophysiology.  Moreover, Drucker notes, molecules that were associated with more informative genetics, like leptin, have not translated thus far into broadly effective medicines for the treatment of obesity.
  • GLP-1 seems to “talk to the brain,” but indirectly; the mechanism seems unclear:  Drucker explains that GLP-1 “doesn’t directly get into the brain to a meaningful extent,” and how it communicates with the brain is “is not well understood … in the magic that we see.”  Given the impact of GLP-1 on appetite control, this seems like a glaring gap in understanding – or rather, an important opportunity for future study.
  • Role of serendipity: GLP-1 medicines emerged from decades of meticulous research (including foundational and continuing work by Drucker).  In other words, the discovery of GLP-1 and the elucidation of their biological and pharmacological effects weren’t simply a happy accident.  But what was unbelievably lucky, it seems, is that the medicines work as well as they do with an apparent paucity of serious side effects.  Drucker notes that while there are some side effects when patients start taking GLP-1 medicines, these tend to dissipate, while the positive effects on appetite suppression persist. (The most common side effects are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea).
Acquired: Novo Nordisk

The Acquired podcast – recently described by the Wall Street Journal as what “the smartest people in the room are all listening to” – is a monthly, in-depth discussion of a leading company, hosted by former-VCs Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal

In January, Gilbert and Rosenthal took on their first life science company, Novo Nordisk, reviewing its fascinating history, and contextualizing its strategy in the context of other businesses.  Listening to two smart, enthusiastic business analysts, who aren’t pharma insiders, wrap their heads around the complexities of healthcare and drug development was engaging and illuminating. The episode, as usual for Acquired, is long (this one runs over three and half hours!) but captivating and worth your time.

Key points for TR readers:

  • Importance of a champion: Drug development requires champions (see here, here, here).  In this case, the champion is Novo Nordisk’s Lotte Bjerre Knudsen, who led the effort to develop a long-acting GLP-1, and then to guide it towards obesity.  The magnitude of this achievement is especially remarkable since the CEO at the time, Lars Rebien Sorensen, was initially skeptical about developing GLP-1 for obesity.  “Obesity is primarily a social and cultural problem,” he once said. “It should be solved by means of a radical restructuring of society. There is no business for Novo Nordisk in that area.”

    Lotte Bjerre Knudsen

  • Focus on obesity from the beginning (this is actually from ACQ2, a second podcast hosted by Gilbert and Rosenthal, in an episode focused on Knudsen): “The target market was also obesity from the beginning,” Knudsen says about GLP-1 molecules, pushing back on idea that they somehow stumbled into obesity.  “We did have a strategic intent to go after obesity early on.
  • Recognition of the risk of drug development: Perhaps my favorite part of the episode was when Gilbert and Rosenthal discuss the remarkable challenges and exceptional risks of drug development, in the context of other businesses.  Their recognition and articulation of the difficulty and urgency of coming up with new medicines represents a level of insight that seems to have eluded many others.

As strong as this episode is, the hosts may overstate their case when they suggest Novo’s exceptional business performance may be attributable to their concentration in, and singular focus on diabetes and metabolism. While Novo’s deep experience in diabetes and metabolism unquestionably facilitated their development of GLP-1 medicines, they are also incredibly lucky that these medicines turned out to be such a breakout hit, and not (as discussed above) saddled with all sorts of side-effects or other challenges. 

Concentrating efforts in any one area is like putting all your chips on a particular Roulette number – if you’re lucky, you can win big, but if not (for example, if you went all-in on Alzheimer’s Disease, an incredibly urgent medical need that hasn’t yet seen great therapeutic success), you might fare poorly. 

If you are going to bet big, however, it makes sense to do it in an area where you are expert, and can both choose as wisely as possible, and also be prepared to take advantage of a win if you get one. Gilead’s acquisition of Pharmasset for $11.4B in 2011 – derided by many analysts at the time, just before they started applauding Gilead’s subsequent success in curing hepatitis C – seems like a similar example.

Honestly: Bari Weiss interviews Johann Hari

Bari Weiss and the Honestly podcast offer independent-minded takes on a range of issues, including topics related to health. Here, she interviews author Johann Hari about his latest book, Magic Pill (I discussed his previous effort, Stolen Focus, for TR readers here).

Hari’s new work features reporting on GLP-1 medicines including in particular their social context, a perspective he succinctly summarizes in a recent New York Times op-ed.

It was especially interesting to listen to Hari’s distillation after hearing Drucker’s, because Drucker’s presentation emphasized the limitations of science and the many areas of ambiguity and uncertainty, while Hari offered a tidy narrative that at times felt scientifically dubious.

Key highlights for TR readers:

  • View that the American diet is responsible for altered satiety setpoint:  Hari tells us about a neuroscientist, Paul Kenny, who early in his career was struck by the differences between the United States and his native Ireland, and his sense that American food was affecting his mind as well as his body.  Kenney later discovered that rats who were raised on a normal diet and then offered American food “went crazy for the American diet…within a couple of days, they were different animals. And they very rapidly all became obese.”
  • Examples of healthier food in other countries like Japan, where the obesity rate is 4%, compared to a rate of 42% in the United States:  Hari describes visiting a “typical” school in Japan, and discovering processed food is banned, kids are served “unbelievably healthy” freshly-prepared meals, and children express preferences for healthy vegetables like broccoli.  (Like Hari, I found this unimaginable, and wasn’t surprised to hear his first thought was that he was being trolled by the kids; he wasn’t.)
  • Examples of approaches to obesity management in the work setting that seem unimaginably over the top.  Hari tells us about a law in Japan mandating that “every company in Japan has to weigh its entire staff on a particular day. And if your weight has gone up, you have to make a plan with your employer to bring it down. And if as a company overall your staff’s weight has gone up, you are fined by the government.”
The Journal: Trillion Dollar Shot

One of my favorite podcasts is The Journal, co-produced by Gimlet and the Wall Street Journal.  Most days, they look in depth at a topic in the news, but occasionally they put together a series taking an even deeper look at an important topic, seeking and sharing multiple perspectives across several episodes. I recent highlighted another Journal series (With Great Power) that focused on the birth of Marvel studios.

The current series (as of this writing only the first episode has dropped) promises an examination of GLP-1 medicines – how they were developed, and the effects they are having on “bodies, fortunes, and industries.”

Key highlights for TR readers:

  • A recurrent theme of innovation has been the need for persistence and conviction, along with the uncomfortable fact that, as Judah Folkman said, “If your idea succeeds, everybody says you’re persistent. If it doesn’t, you’re obstinate.”  The problem is you can’t figure out until later the category in which you belong. It’s clear from this podcast that Lotte Bjerre Knudsen, the champion we met earlier, was persistent. The former CEO of Novo, Lars Rebien Sorensen, describes Knudsen as “a person that’s very, very difficult to say ‘No’ to,” someone whose team succeeded “because of their stubbornness and their skills and their professionalism.”
  • Industry view of obesity drugs: Sorensen also highlights the initial concerns of pursuing GLP-1 medicines for obesity, noting that “at the time, almost all without exception, weight-lowering drugs had failed, some even so badly that companies were sued. So I knew that if we started talking too much about the obesity effect of GLP-1, we might taint a very good diabetes drug.” (As noted earlier, Sorensen also viewed obesity as a social rather than a medical challenge.)

    Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, obesity medicine expert, MGH

  • Unexpected high discontinuation rate: Perhaps the most striking fact I learned from all of these podcasts was the exceptionally high discontinuation rate from GLP-1 medicines.  The Acquired podcast that noted “one out of six patients have side effects that are so severe that they discontinue the drug,” and “as many as 68% of people roll off it after a year.” This is especially surprising since most of the weight lost due to GLP-1 medicines returns if the drug is discontinued. The Journal podcast offered the most compelling insight into the potential reasons for the high rate of discontinuations; one of the journalists reporting the story actually stopped taking the medicine himself although it seemed to be working well for him.  The key reasons for discontinuation seem to be (a) cost (a huge factor and the reason the reporter stopped); (b) side effects; (c) the inconvenience of needing to hunt for supplies of a medicine where manufacturing can’t keep with the demand. Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, of the MGH Weight Center, tells me that the most significant issue in her experience has been serious ongoing challenges with the supply.

Collectively, these podcasts offer different but overlapping perspectives on GLP-1 medicines, and provide insight into the history, science, and strategy around these medicines. They also remind us of the complex interplay between transformative medicines and broader society, and the need for life science companies to engage with it – ideally with authentic curiosity, humility, and empathy.

8
May
2024

Enduring Uncertainty, Hoping for Luck, Touched by Magic

David Shaywitz

A main theme of this column – perhaps even the dominant theme – is how to operate in a power-law domain like drug development where there are few, outsized successes, where most efforts end in failure, and where it’s incredibly difficult to predict in advance how you are likely to fare.

Earlier this week, I discussed the parallels between film and drug development, highlighting how messy and unpredictable the road to success can be as highlighted by the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in cinema, and Keytruda and Velcade in pharma. 

My conclusion was that in both these domains, success is contingent, but not random; you need to be really lucky in order to succeed, but you can also make choices along the way both to increase your exposure to serendipity and to maximize the opportunity to benefit from it.

Despite, or more likely, because of the incredible uncertainty that inevitably underlies their decisions, many investors and founders tend to project a disproportionate degree of confidence regarding choices and paths that you know are extremely high risk.  It’s easy to confuse this projected conviction with actual knowledge, and to allow yourself to believe that these individuals must really know what they’re talking about. 

On the other hand, as we’ll see, the very uncertainty of success makes achieving it all the more special.

Several recent interviews help provide a sense of perspective here.

Scott Galloway: Luck, timing, and the cultivation of allies

NYU Professor Scott Galloway, co-host of the popular Pivot podcast with Kara Swisher, was recently asked about what distinguishes highly successful people from everyone else.  He replied that “something that plagues people, especially tech bros, is they conflate luck with talent,” adding “the most common attribute” of successful people is that “they were born at the right place and the right time… the majority of people’s success is not their fault.”

This, of course, aligns extremely well with a central theme of Malcolm Galdwell’s Outliers, discussed earlier this week, and reviewed here.  Gladwell emphasizes the importance of being born in the right time and place, pointing to examples like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and Sun Microsystems’ co-founder Bill Joy, among others.

Timing is also an underappreciated factor in VC returns.  A recent piece from the StepStone Group described the “Vintage Year Power Law… the notion that a small number of vintage years within venture capital have historically produced most of the returns for the asset class.”  

Galloway also emphasized the value of soft skills like ensuring you “collect allies,” which increases the chances that you are “are constantly put in rooms of opportunities.”

Michael Moritz: Even great success not obvious early on

Legendary Sequoia investor and former journalist Michael Moritz, in a wide-ranging interview, was asked about the ability to discern early on whether a founder and a company are likely to make it big.

Michael Moritz

His candid response (emphasis added):

“When you invest in a company … you hope it will work, that the product will be enthusiastically received by customers, but you don’t know that in real time. I have never been involved in an investment that became a very successful business, without fearing earlier that the business was going to fail, not even once.”

The interviewer followed-up, “Not even when you worked with the founders of Google in their early days?”

Moritz replied:

“Not even then. The initial business model was very different from the business model we know today, and during the first eight months of the investment the company lost a huge amount of money and I was afraid we would run out of cash.”

This echoes my favorite adage from famed Harvard surgeon-scientist Judah Folkman, discussed earlier this week, and also in this 2017 piece about success narratives:  

“If your idea succeeds, everybody says you’re persistent. If it doesn’t, you’re obstinate.” 

The key point is you need conviction to achieve success, you need to move in a particular direction (former Pixar CEO Ed Catmull makes a similar point in Creativity, Inc).  But – and this is what’s so hard – it’s often impossible to figure out along the way whether you are brilliant or deluded.  As Moritz points out, even Google – today a $2 trillion (with a “t”) company – wasn’t obviously a success early on.

Sam Blackman’s Story

Sam Blackman, a physician-scientist, is a pediatric oncologist by training (you can hear about his origin story on this 2018 episode of Tech Tonics) who pivoted to drug development.

He’s now the co-founder and head of R&D of Day One Biopharmaceuticals, a developer of cancer drugs for children. In late April, their lead drug candidate, tovorafenib (Ojemda), was granted accelerated approval by the FDA for use in a type of pediatric brain tumor.

This story is worthy of our attention for several reasons.

Sam Blackman, MD, PhD; co-founder, head of R&D, Day One Biopharmaceuticals

First, there’s the drug’s convoluted path to approval: as summarized independently by Bruce Booth, Jacob Plieth, and Ron Leuty, the “molecule was discovered in a collaboration between Sunesis & Biogen that started 20 years ago” as Booth notes, then reverted to Sunesis after Biogen deprioritized oncology.  Takeda licensed it in 2011, and spent seven years developing it for multiple myeloma, without success. 

Day One licensed it from Takeda in 2020, targeting a specific condition for which it seemed especially well-suited. (See Timmerman Report from May 2020 on the origin story of Day One Biopharma, and this deep-dive interview from Aug. 2021 with Blackman and co-founder Julie Grant on The Long Run podcast.)

Last month, their years of effort culminated in the FDA granting accelerated approval. This medicine is the first of its kind approved for children with pediatric low-grade glioma. It has shown it can shrink tumors in more than half of patients. This means that many children with this terrifying diagnosis may be able to avoid high-dose chemotherapy and all its toxic side effects, and instead take this medicine as a bridge to a healthy adulthood, when these types of tumors tend to subside.

It’s a life-changing medicine.

Those basic facts make for a compelling story. But what this account fails to capture, is the tortuous emotional journey of drug development from the perspective of those doing the developing.  Here we are unusually fortunate, because Blackman – an expert story-teller and Moth veteran – has given us a treat.

In a 12-minute video shared on LinkedIn, Blackman walks us through the experience of developing this medicine.  Blackman captures, in the most effective way I’ve ever seen, the interior monologue of drug development – the feeling of confronting tremendously long odds, the persistent hopes, the crushing disappointments, and all at a very personal and relatable level. 

It’s essential viewing for anyone curious why we in life science do what we do, and an expression of what, at our best and most fortunate, we can achieve.

While the video absolutely must be watched in its entirety – yes it’s worth your 12 minutes – I can’t resist summarizing just a few relevant highlights.

  • A formative experience first learning about drug development during an in-house course at GSK, when the instructor told attendees to look at the person sitting to their left and to their right, and explained, “the odds are that none of you will ever work on a drug that gets approved. None of you.”
  • His experiences in early cancer drug development, where he’d “work on programs where the science seemed totally understood, where the preclinical data was so compelling that it made me want to get that IND filed and get that drug into patients as quickly as possible — only to have something unexpected blow the program out of the water.”
  • The feeling of constantly anticipating each new drug was going to be successful, and imaging what that would feel like, and then “a year would go by or two and it wouldn’t work. I’d see the data. They’d be meh.”

On his reflections after failures:

“I’d look back across failed programs, and sometimes I’d see the decisions that we made along the way about how to develop the molecule, and I’d see that those decisions were right, but the science was wrong. Or sometimes I look back and I see that the science was right, but we made the wrong decisions and choices. I’d look backwards and see all the could-have-beens and should-have-beens and the never-could-have-beens, and I realized, yeah, it’s possible that no matter how hard I work or how hard I tried, it may very well be that I could spend the remaining years of my career and have nothing to show for it, but having worked on a bunch of programs, never having made a new medicine.”

On the challenges of making critical decisions with incomplete and imperfect information.

“All of the times that we had to be right, and all of the times we had to not be wrong.”

On the contingency of success:

“I can look back now and see how rare it is to be at this point for all of us at Day One, to have arrived in this place and at this very moment together, because so many things had to work out just right.”

These small excerpts don’t begin to do justice to the magnificence of Blackman’s talk (again: please watch!), but they highlight just how incredibly difficult and fraught it is to get a new drug to patients. 

But when it happens — when, as Blackman says, you touch your dream for the first time — “it feels absolutely magical.”

4
May
2024

Success in Film and Pharma: Contingent But Not Random

David Shaywitz

Film and pharma, like many creative endeavors, exist in a world of power law economics, where a handful of exceptionally successful products account for a massively disproportionate share of the total revenue. 

Consequently, in both domains, there’s a powerful incentive to “pick winners.” Every studio head and every R&D leader tries desperately to do this. 

But there’s a problem: as screenwriting legend William Goldman (The Princess Bride, All The President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) famously observed.

“Nobody knows anything.”   

The full quote, from Goldman’s classic 1983 memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade, continues, “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

Similarly, distinguished physician-scientist and former head of R&D at Merck, Dr. Roger Perlmutter, bluntly acknowledges, “we have no idea what we’re doing,” adding, “It’s a bloody miracle if you ever make a drug that works.”

Roger Perlmutter

Revenue predictions in pharma ahead of launch are also notoriously difficult to predict, as studies by both BCG and McKinsey have affirmed. Earlier stage (pre-Phase 2) forecasts – the sort of thing former NIBR head Mark Fishman wisely banned, but current management has reinstated – seem especially fraught (see here).

Yet beneath this truth lie two conflicting realities.

  1. As appealing as the narrative of drug development moving gracefully between biology and clinic is, with “line of sight” thinking and guided by a target product profile, the actual process tends to be far messier, particularly in the case of novel mechanisms;
  2. Even though a huge number of lucky breaks are required to achieve a blockbuster, this does not mean that such success is simply random, equally available to anyone who buys a lottery ticket.  Talent, taste, and teamwork are vital as well, not to mention judgement and determination. 

The real lesson is that in power law domains like film and pharma, success is incredibly difficult to achieve.  You need both a huge amount of good fortune and a team that actively seeks opportunities to benefit from serendipity.

A good team has the mindset, competence, and agility to leverage effectively whatever luck comes their way. 

Path To A Blockbuster Drug: Messier Than You’d Think

In a fascinating recent interview, R&D productivity scholar Jack Scannell (of Eroom’s Law fame) discusses what might be called the noble lie of drug development: the conceit that we have the ability to understand adequately and domesticate reliably biology. Nassim Taleb and I wrote about this in the Financial Times in 2008.

Scannell explained that to advance a candidate medicine in a drug development organization, you need a very clear and crisp story of why you think it’s going to work, in order to compete successfully for resources.  He also notes that every time a drug is successfully developed, there’s always a just-so story explaining why the process worked.

Jack Scannell

The problem, Scannell accurately points out, is that these narratives evolve over time – an approach that in retrospect seems logical and methodical (and hence, presumably, repeatable) yet was almost certainly far less structured and streamlined in practice. 

If there’s a canonical path for drug development, many first-in-class medicines never got the memo.  Scannell cites the example of anti-TNF drugs, which were initially developed for sepsis; they didn’t work.  Only later were anti-TNF candidates tried in inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis; products in this category today include Humira (cumulative global sales of around $200B) and Enbrel (cumulative sales of around $74M as of 2021, estimated to hit $100B by 2029). 

Similar examples abound.  Botox (as I’ve discussed, see here, here) was originally developed and FDA-approved as a medicine for strabismus; sildenafil (Viagra), famously, entered clinical trials as a potential treatment for angina.

Pembrolizumab (Keytruda), Merck’s blockbuster oncology drug, as I discussed in depth here, was initially developed by researchers at Organon Pharmaceuticals in Oss, the Netherlands, as part of a hunt for an inhibitor of the immune system to help patients with autoimmune disease. 

When a stimulator (technically, an inhibitor of an inhibitor) was discovered instead, researchers contemplated a range of uses including as an anti-viral medicine and as a vaccine enhancer, before setting on developing it as a potential cancer medicine.  Even so, it was effectively invisible to the R&D leadership of multiple companies for years, including Merck which was on the edge of out-licensing it, only pulling it back in at the last moment. 

Or consider my former employer, Takeda, which acquired Millennium Pharmaceuticals in 2008 for $8.8 billion in order “to bolster its cancer drug business,” according to Reuters. At the heart of this transaction was bortezomib (Velcade), a cancer drug Millennium acquired when it bought Leukosite in 1999 for its pipeline, most notably a share the drug Campath (later sold to ILEX which was then acquired by Genzyme).  At the time of the acquisition, Millennium “had no interest in bortezomib,” and was effectively unaware of its existence. 

Leukosite, for its part, had acquired bortezomib from a company called ProScript after it ran out of money; ProScript, meanwhile, began life as Myogenics, a company co-founded in 1993 by Harvard scientists Alfred Goldberg, Tom Maniatis, Kenneth Rock, and Michael Rosenblatt.  The company was focused on targeting the proteosome, which is involved in protein degradation.  The original goal was to help treat disorders of muscle wasting, hence the name.  But in 1994, after a compelling conversation with Israeli researcher and future Nobel laureate Avram Hershko, the startup’s head of research, Julian Adams, decided to pivot to cancer (and change the company’s name to ProScript). 

As Goldberg later reflected, “Most scientists do not realize how the progress of drug development depends so much on nonscientific issues and random events — and luck.” 

The broader point is that while both Velcade and Keytruda are important oncology medicines ultimately developed successfully by Millennium and Merck, respectively, the origin and early evolution of each was incredibly messy, and effectively the antithesis of the carefully scripted process we might have been tempted (or seduced) to imagine. 

Similarly, anti-TNF medicines weren’t initially developed to treat rheumatoid arthritis, Botox wasn’t developed to treat wrinkles, sildenafil wasn’t developed for erectile dysfunction. Moreover, as Morton Meyers documents in Happy Accidents (see my discussion here), many categories of medicines used in psychiatry were originally discovered through astute clinical observation rather than deliberate drug design focused on the particular indication.

Path To A Blockbuster Film Franchise: Messier Than You’d Think

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), featuring Spiderman, X-Men, Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, and many others is the single most successful franchise in movie history, netting nearly $30B in global box office so far, and much more in associated licensing.  These are impressive numbers even by pharma standards.

Much like the eventual success of Keytruda and Velcade, the triumph of the MCU was hardly inevitable, as a fascinating new book, MCU, and an engaging Wall Street Journal podcast series, “With Great Power,” both reveal.

Marvel Comics, founded in 1939 as Timely Comics, enjoyed its heyday in the 1960s, as writer Stan Lee led the development of such memorable characters as the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spiderman, Ant Man, and Iron Man, among others.  After a series of financial transactions starting in 1968, Marvel wound up in the hands of corporate raider Ronald Perelman in 1989.  Perelman, in turn used the company as a vehicle to acquire other companies including a sports card company and a sticker company, loading up Marvel with extensive debt. 

In 1990, Marvel sold licensing rights to ToyBiz, a company owned by entrepreneur Ike Perlmutter, an emigree from Israel who had made his fortune in the U.S. as a liquidator, buying products from failing businesses and selling them to consumers at a small markup.  The profits from this enabled him to acquire and turn around distressed companies instead of products; for example, he acquired and later flipped Caleco to Hasbro, pocketing $40 million in the process. 

In 1990, Perlmutter acquired the struggling toy maker ToyBiz, and hired inventive toy creator Avi Arad (another Israeli emigree) to help the company come up with new products.  Having watched the sales of Batman toys go through the roof with the release of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 (ToyBiz had a non-exclusive license to DC characters), Perlmutter pursued and acquired the exclusive rights to Marvel characters from Perelman.  The sales of these were sufficiently encouraging to encourage Ike to strike a new deal with Perlman in 1993: Marvel would get 43% of ToyBiz and in exchange, ToyBiz would gain exclusive licensing rights for all Marvel characters into perpetuity.

To support Marvel’s struggling balance sheet in 1993-1994 – and to stimulate the sale of toys – Marvel, in a deal led by Arad, sold the movie rights to X-Men and the Fantastic Four to 20th Century Fox. But Marvel couldn’t stave off the inevitable, and in 1996, the company declared bankruptcy, with the intention of restructuring their debts.   

Unexpectedly, a fight ensued between Perelman and another well-known corporate raider, Carl Icahn.  In 1997, ToyBiz abruptly parachuted into the middle of this dispute with an unsolicited offer of their own to acquire Marvel, showing up uninvited to a meeting of creditors to make their pitch.  After a lengthy legal fight, ToyBiz was awarded the business in 1998. 

The future of Marvel was now in the hands of a toy company.

Desperate for cash, Perlmutter soon cut a deal for Spiderman with Sony (who already owned a sliver of the rights, from an earlier tractions).  Marvel received $10 million plus 5% of the profits – in addition to whatever they made from any Spiderman-related toys.  The movie, which came out in 2002, did fairly well, achieving a box office of more than $100 million.  When Perlmutter saw this, he was furious, and decided he gave away too much to Sony in this transaction. 

In 2003, a savvy young business whiz named David Maisel met with Perlmutter and floated what was a radical idea at the time: perhaps Marvel could make its own movies, rather than just license the rights to others.  By controlling the production, Maisel said, they could better coordinate the timely development and sale of movie-related toys, which was always what Perlmutter saw as the key source of revenue. 

Maisel eventually persuaded Merrill Lynch to provide $525 million, enough to make two movies; as collateral for this, Marvel offered up movie rights to a broad portfolio of their characters.  After conducting focus groups with children, Marvel decided that the most popular toy would be one based on Iron Man, and so this was nominated to be the movie they filmed first.

Overseeing this project would be a Marvel fanatic named Kevin Feige, who was hired by Arad in 2000 after seeing Feige’s contribution to an X-Men movie that was made in the late ‘90s and released in 2000, produced by Lauren Shuler-Donner, for whom Feige was working as an assistant at the time. 

Feige and Maisel, in turn, both selected Jon Favreau to direct Iron Man. This was critical to the movie’s eventual success, not least because Favreau identified Robert Downey Jr as the ideal actor to portray Tony Stark, and then passionately advocated for him despite Perlmutter’s strenuous objections (Downey was considered a risky choice because of his well-known history of substance abuse). 

Favreau eventually won, Downey joined the cast, and other talented actors and crew members were soon drawn by Downey’s presence.  Downey turned out to be perfect for the role, the movie was an enormous success, and the franchise was launched, steered by Feige’s vision for an integrated series of films all taking place in a coherent universe – the MCU.

Jon Favreau

Interestingly, Favreau got the opportunity to direct Iron Man in part because of his success directing the 2003 Christmas classic Elf, starring Will Ferrell. Favreau had heard about Elf in 2001 when he was guest directing an episode of a TV show called Undeclared, created by Judd Apatow, who shared a manager with Ferrell.  The TV show opportunity, in turn, resulted from the success of his 1996 cult classic, Swingers – a film that he wrote in less than two weeks after his dad sent him screenwriter software and for amusement, he thought he’d try it out. 

Favreau barely managed to get Swingers financed (ultimately a friend of the director’s father ponied up $200,000). He struggled to film the picture on this tiny budget, relying on friends, spare supplies, and unpermitted locations often requiring guerilla filming tactics to complete a take rapidly before he was kicked out.

In short: the MCU was launched from the success of Iron Man, driven largely by the appeal of Robert Downey Jr, who was cast only because director Jon Favreau had insisted, and Favreau was in the director’s chair only because of a remarkable series of fortunate events. 

Contingent but not Random

While the successful development of blockbuster movies and medicines clearly requires a huge number of unplanned and perhaps unplannable things to go right, their successes, critically, are not random either. 

Luck may be necessary, but it’s hardly sufficient.

The launch of the MCU, for example, clearly involved an exceptional amount of luck but it also required extremely talented people, in this case a balance sheet-focused business executive, Ike Perlmutter, joined by the creative Avi Arad; a visionary finance strategist, David Maisel; an imaginative, ultra-high-EQ subject matter expert, Kevin Feige; and a director with great taste and an expansive network, Jon Favreau. 

It would be a mistake to attribute the coalescence of this team to dumb luck.  Feige, for example, had attended film school at USC after applying six times (he was rejected the first five), and then pursued an internship with the Hollywood power couple of Laura Schuler-Donner and Richard Donner (Richard had directed the 1978 film Superman, starring Christopher Reeve). 

Maisel, drawn to the entertainment business, had apprenticed with legendary superagent Michael Ovitz after first attending Harvard Business School and spending time at the Boston Consulting Group.  Favreau, meanwhile, had spent years hustling in Chicago and Los Angeles as an aspiring actor and director; bit parts include “D-Bob” in Rudy (1993), and “Eric the Clown” on an episode in the fifth season of Seinfeld (1994).

In Outliers (my WSJ review here), Malcolm Gladwell discusses underappreciated factors that can contribute to success, such as hours of practice and hard work.  As I noted, “For the Beatles, the hard work of marathon engagements in Hamburg’s red-light district early in their careers was crucial. ‘By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964,’Mr. Gladwell writes, ‘they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers.’”  Similarly, Bruce Springsteen, in his captivating autobiography, cites his years of experience in a bar band as critical for his later success. 

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, in Don’t Trust Your Gut (see my discussion here), also examines how artists can increase their exposure to serendipity by getting themselves out there rather than waiting to be discovered.  Maisel, Feige, and Favreau, in evolving their careers, all seem to have chosen, deliberately, to put themselves in the path of serendipity, maximizing their chance to get lucky.  Maisel worked with Ovitz, Feige went to USC film school and then worked with Schuler-Donner, and Favreau keeping himself in the mix as an actor (and later director), as frustrating as that must have felt for most of his early career.

The success of Keytruda and Velcade, also, required more than just good luck.  While Merck’s head of R&D Roger Perlmutter wasn’t responsible for the Keytruda’s discovery and early development, he soon recognized the promise of the drug, and ensured Merck was all-in on its development, independent of whatever his (and Merck’s) preexisting strategic plans might have been. Similarly, the championing of Velcade by Julian Adams was essential to its development — not least his role in persuading a skeptical Millennium to resource it after the acquisition of Leukosite.   

What Is To Be Done?

On an individual level, it seems like a good idea to stay in the mix as much as possible, not least because the people you work with on a failed program today might be some of the same people you might work with on a successful drug tomorrow, and the skills and instincts you develop along the way in the trenches enable you to become increasingly effective, assuming you are curious, industrious, and collegial.

On a company level, it’s more complicated. Most large pharmas are built around a degree of planning and projection that works beautifully in Excel and Powerpoint.  However, the approach generally doesn’t meaningfully acknowledge, much less come close to describing, the messy reality of novel product development. 

This discrepancy suggests there must be an incredible arbitrage opportunity here for more agile leaders and nimbler organizations, and presumably this is what venture-backed biotech start-ups are effectively doing. It’s not surprising to learn that only a quarter of new approvals in big pharma originated in-house, and unless big pharma can truly figure out how to industrialize and brute-force innovation, I’d be surprised to see big pharma’s in-house number go anywhere but down.

Stay Humble

It seems only appropriate to conclude a piece around uncertainty with several humbling reminders.

As Judah Folkman, a pioneering surgeon-scientist and a great champion of innovation at Harvard famously observed, “If your idea succeeds, everybody says you’re persistent. If it doesn’t, you’re obstinate.”  

In other words: to pursue any idea, at some point, you have to just put your head down and go after it; the problem is you have no way of knowing until afterwards whether you were right.

This lesson has particularly poignancy in the case of Folkman, who is perhaps best known for advancing the thesis that to grow beyond a certain size, cancers need to acquire their own blood supply, and if you can inhibit the grow of new blood vessels – for example, with drugs targeting VEGF — you might be able to starve and kill cancers.

It now seems, as Scannell points out in his interview, that these anti-VEGF cancer medicines, like Avastin, might work in other ways. As MGH cancer researcher Rakesh Jain wrote in 2014, these “agents could transiently ‘normalize’ the abnormal tumor vasculature, resulting in improved blood perfusion,” and helping other anti-cancer treatments (both drugs and radiation) work better. 

Thus, the medicines Folkman was championing might work, but perhaps not for the reasons he thought.

Ed Catmull

We might give the last word to former Pixar CEO Ed Catmull, who wrote an entire book, Creativity, Inc., about the challenges of serial creativity, and the need to successively reinvent yourself each time (see my discussion here). 

While readers “often thanked him for sharing his formula for surefire creative success,” the Wall Street Journal reported in 2023, the book conspicuously makes the opposite point: there isn’t “a template” for success – at best, he allows, there is perhaps “a way of thinking.”

Catmull’s insight bears repeating: inconveniently, there just isn’t a ready formula for creative success.  Catmull was talking about original movies in particular, but he could just as easily have been discussing original books, songs, drugs, or even venture investments, which all obey power law dynamics. 

Even if you are part of a team that has delivered an outsized success, or the CEO of the organization responsible, it doesn’t mean that you can now apply what you’ve learned and simply do it again, or that your organization can now apply these tidy “lessons learned.”  

I find it liberating to recognize that there isn’t a secret formula for innovative success in pharma (or any other creative domain ruled by the power law).  It means we don’t need to distract ourselves wondering whether we are doing it “right,” or worry if we’re not following the putative example of previous successes (which would be particularly misguided given the post-hoc narrative biases Scannell describes). 

Novel, impactful medicines – like novel, impactful films – are incredibly difficult to create, and require an exceptional amount of luck. 

What we can control, however, is how we approach this challenge:  with authentic intellectual curiosity, and colleagues who are talented, inquisitive, and nimble, approaching their work with conviction yet able to pivot in response to new information. 

True, we may not succeed.  Yet as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman observed, “If you don’t risk failure, you’re never going to do anything that’s different from what you’ve already done or what somebody else has done.” 

1
May
2024

Investing in Biotech & Healthcare Delivery: Vineeta Agarwala on The Long Run

Today’s guest on The Long Run is Vineeta Agarwala.

Vineeta is a general partner with Andreesen Horowitz’s Bio & Health fund. She invests in a variety of therapeutics and diagnostics startups.

Vineeta Agarwala, general partner, A16Z Bio & Health

Gate Bioscience, Rome Therapeutics, Rezo Therapeutics, Bighat Bioscience, Function Oncology, and Orbital Therapeutics are a few examples.

She also is a physician by training, still sees patients once a week in a cancer survivorship clinic at Stanford. That is part of what gives her an unusual ability to move from the lab bench all the way to the implementation side of healthcare. Pearl Health, Memora Health, and Pomelo Care are a few of her portfolio companies on the ‘health’ side of the house.

Vineeta is a previous guest on The Long Run from December 2021. In this more recent conversation, she and I spoke on stage at the Life Science Innovation Northwest conference in Seattle on Apr. 17, 2024.

We talk here mainly about her view of recent developments with AI for drug discovery.

Before we get started:

I’m looking for a business representative. This person will be asked to sell group subscriptions to Timmerman Report, sell sponsorship packages to The Long Run podcast, and negotiate my speaking engagements. This position will pay a base salary plus commissions. The ideal candidate is someone seeking to grow their knowledge and network in the biotech industry. Interested? Email me at luke@timmermanreport.com

Now please join me and Vineeta Agarwala on The Long Run.

16
Apr
2024

New Tools & Techniques for Biology: David Liu on The Long Run

David Liu, professor, chemistry and chemical biology, Harvard University; core institute member, Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT

Today’s guest on The Long Run is David Liu.

David is a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, and a core institute member at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. In biotech industry world, he’s a founder or co-founder of a long list of companies, including Beam Therapeutics, Prime Medicine, Editas Medicine, Chroma Medicine, and Exo Therapeutics. And that’s not the entire list.

His best-known contributions to industry include a first-generation CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing company, a CRISPR base editing company, then a prime editing company, and epigenetic editing company. But there’s a small molecule drug developer taking aim at unconventional binding sites on enzymes.

One common thread that runs through David’s career is a focus on using new tools, and developing new techniques, to advance biology. Besides the widely known advances in gene editing, he’s known for fundamental work on phage-assisted continuous evolution and DNA‐Templated Organic Synthesis that set the stage for his later work. Going back and reading some of those early papers sheds some light on what and why he did the things that came later.

In this conversation, I asked David to talk about his early life and influences that maybe aren’t so widely known among collaborators in academia and industry. We spent a good bit of time on that, before getting into more recent advances with base editing and prime editing.

This conversation was recorded Apr. 2 in his office at the Broad Institute.

Before we get started, I have a couple of announcements to make:

One, I’m pleased to announce two new Timmerman Traverse campaigns in 2024. One is for Life Science Cares with a focus on fighting poverty around the US. The next one is for Sickle Forward, a nonprofit devoted to improving newborn screening and treatment of sickle cell disease in Africa. Both campaigns are loaded with biotech leaders working to raise $1 million. For more information about who’s on the team and how to contribute, go to TimmermanReport.com and click on “Traverse.”

Second, I have a job opening. I’m looking for a business representative. This person will be asked to sell group subscriptions to Timmerman Report, sell sponsorship packages to The Long Run podcast, and negotiate my speaking engagements. This position will pay a base salary plus commissions. The ideal candidate is someone seeking to grow their knowledge and network in the biotech industry. Interested? luke@timmermanreport.com

Now please join me and David Liu on The Long Run.

10
Apr
2024

Meet the Timmerman Traverse for Sickle Forward Team

I’m thrilled to announce a new initiative to raise $1 million to fight sickle cell disease. It’s the Timmerman Traverse for Sickle Forward.

A team of 21 biotech leaders are banding together for Sickle Forward in 2024. It’s a nonprofit dedicated to improving newborn screening and treatment of sickle cell disease in Africa.

Ted Love, chairman of the board, BIO

When we hit that goal, we will secure another $1 million match to advance sickle cell disease research in the US. This makes it a global effort.

In September, we’ll gather to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa at 19,341 feet.

We’ll accomplish a few things along the way.

We will raise awareness of this long-neglected disease and treatments that offer new hope.

Alan Anderson, physician-scientist; executive director, Sickle Forward

We will give back to those less fortunate.

We will relish the beauty of Kilimanjaro and the Tanzanian people.

We will form deep, lasting friendships.

Who’s on the Team?

  • Luke Timmerman, founder and editor, Timmerman Report (co-chair)
  • Ted Love, chairman of the board, BIO (co-chair)
  • Alan Anderson, physician-scientist, University of South Carolina; director of the Comprehensive SCD Program of Prisma Health-Upstate; executive director, Sickle Forward (co-chair)
  • Patrick Hines, founder and CEO, Functional Fluidics
  • Terry-Ann “TA” Burrell, chief financial officer, Beam Therapeutics
  • Asha Collins, senior vice president, general manager, Biobanks Data Analysis Platform, DNAnexus
  • Alexander Gruzdev, vice president of sales and marketing, Silver Lake Research Company
  • Elena Gruzdev, representative, Silver Lake Research Company
  • Alex Harding, head of business development, CRISPR Therapeutics
  • Sam Blackman, founder, head of R&D, Day One Biopharmaceuticals
  • Davy Chiodin, chief development officer, Day One Biopharmaceuticals
  • Matt Donne, director, business operations, Renasant Bio
  • Jimi Olaghere, founder, VP of commerce, Resurgence (one of the first people cured of sickle cell disease with CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing)
  • Maurice Garland, head of sales, Ferring Pharmaceuticals
  • Stephen Scully, co-founder, interim chief technology officer, Liberate Bio
  • Ilyas Said, patient advocate and board member, Sickle Cell Disease Patient Community of Tanzania
  • Alain Romero, consultant, independent
  • Jingyi Liu, clinical fellow, Brigham & Women’s Hospital
  • John Mennel, managing director, Monitor Deloitte
  • Doug McConnell, co-founder and CEO, Safi Biotherapeutics
  • Sarah Alspach, senior vice president, external affairs, bluebird bio
  • Eva Gallagher, vice president, head of medical affairs, Agios Pharmaceuticals
  • Audra Boscoe, vice president, health economics, outcomes research, Agios Pharmaceuticals
  • Kobina Dufu, head of cell and translational biology, Pfizer

Major Sponsors

  • Silver Lake Research Company
  • bluebird bio
  • Vertex Pharmaceuticals
  • Agios Pharmaceuticals
  • Pfizer

I’m excited about this campaign in terms of the breadth and depth of the impact it will have for people with sickle cell disease.

As Alan Anderson, executive director of Sickle Forward, puts it:

“Sickle Forward firmly believes in ensuring that every child, irrespective of their birthplace, has access to timely diagnosis and appropriate treatment for sickle cell disease. Through a combination of grant and private foundation support, Sickle Forward recently launched a bold initiative to screen 100,000 infants for sickle cell disease in Mali and Togo. This comprehensive approach, coupled with access to routine treatment, holds the potential to save lives. The funds raised through the Timmerman Traverse for Sickle Forward will facilitate a significant expansion of the screening and treatment programs across Africa, furthering our mission to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those affected by sickle cell disease.”

This expedition has potential to save many lives in the short-term, and even more by advancing research over the long-term.

Thank you for your support.

8
Apr
2024

Meet the Timmerman Traverse for Life Science Cares 2024 Team

Luke Timmerman, founder & editor, Timmerman Report

The Timmerman Traverse for Life Science Cares is back for a $1 million mission to fight poverty in 2024.

This year’s team is coming together in common cause. We will bond together on a pair of spectacular hikes in the Pacific Northwest.

We will cover 20 miles of trails, with more than 7,000 feet of elevation gain, over two days in the North Cascades.

Legs will be tired.

Foreheads will be sweaty.

Shoulders may be achy.

We’ll enjoy fellowship amid some of the most spectacular scenery in North America.

Aug. 19: Hidden Lake Lookout

Aug. 20: Cascade Pass / Sahale Arm

Who’s on the Team?

  • Vineeta Agarwala, general partner, A16Z Bio & Health
  • Nancy Simonian, former CEO, Syros Pharmaceuticals
  • Jennifer McNealey, chief financial officer, Abdera Therapeutics
  • Ashley Van Zeeland, VP, corporate development, Illumina
  • Jason Coloma, CEO, Maze Therapeutics
  • Joe Payne, founder and CEO, Arcturus Therapeutics
  • Cayce Denton, general partner, Dandelion Capital Management
  • Colin Hill, founder and CEO, Aitia
  • Aaron Ring, Anderson Family Endowed Chair in Immunotherapy, associate professor, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center; co-founder, Simcha Therapeutics, Seranova, Stipple Bio, ALX Oncology, Ab Initio Biotherapeutics
  • Racquel Bracken, partner, Venrock
  • Bonnie Anderson, co-founder and CEO, PinkDx; former co-founder and CEO, Veracyte; board member, Bruker and DNA Script
  • Ethan Weiss, entrepreneur-in-residence, Third Rock Ventures
  • Jim Reddoch, EVP and CSO, Royalty Pharma
  • Katherine Andersen, head of life sciences, HSBC Bank USA
  • Amy Abernethy, former principal deputy commissioner, FDA
  • Jim Birchenough, Chairman of Global Healthcare Investment Banking and Co-Head of Global Biopharma Investment Banking, Barclays
  • Harlan Robins, co-founder and CSO, Adaptive Biotechnologies
  • Saul Fink, chief technology officer, Q32 Bio
  • Tracy Fink, founder, The Tortoise Institute

Who’s Guiding?

Who’s Sponsoring?

  • Third Rock Ventures

How can I help LSC fight poverty?

Since 2021, the Timmerman Traverse has raised $3 million to break the cycle of poverty and open doors to opportunity.

These trips have catalyzed a national expansion of the Project Onramp program. The plan is to bring 1,000 interns from underrepresented minorities into biotech job opportunities by 2027.

These expeditions are a force for good. We’re just getting warmed up.

Watch this team!

 

“We started as industry colleagues with an aligned philanthropic goal. We finished as friends, deeply connected through an experience none of us will ever forget and all of us will work to rekindle in our lives.” — Reid Huber, partner, Third Rock Ventures

4
Apr
2024

How CymaBay Survived a Safety Scare

Dylan Neel, MD/PhD candidate at Harvard Medical School

In November 2019, Sujal Shah was the CEO of a public company with two promising late-stage clinical trials underway. The company was worth more than $900 million. 

A couple months later, he found himself cornered in a parking lot by an activist investor—one of a handful pressuring him to shut down and liquidate his company CymaBay Therapeutics.

“I can smile about it now, but it was easily one of the most difficult times of my professional life,” says Shah, CEO of CymaBay (now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Gilead Sciences).

At the time, CymaBay was running the key clinical trials to determine the safety and efficacy of its PPAR-delta agonist, seladelpar, for two liver conditions: primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) and metabolic dysfunction-associated steatohepatitis (MASH). When the clinicians scoring the end of treatment MASH trial results reported worrisome pathologic findings, Shah knew it could mean the end of seladelpar and CymaBay.

Sujal Shah, CEO, CymaBay Therapeutics (now part of Gilead Sciences)

“We had a moral decision to make at that point in time—wait for more data to be analyzed or immediately halt the trial. We decided to immediately stop the study…after all we had no way simple way to determine whether or not the pathology findings were definitively due to seladelpar or not.”

The consequences were swift and severe. CymaBay had to lay off two-thrids of its employees. The stock fell by 76 percent in a day. Most experts told Shah to abandon seladelpar and move on—an investigation would be difficult and take far too long.

“I couldn’t sleep, and would lay awake at night thinking: none of this made any sense? I had to at least try to figure out what happened.”

Shah and his team at CymaBay stuck to their convictions and launched an investigation into the results—an investigation that four months later would totally exonerate seladelpar from having caused any of the atypical pathology observed.

FDA clinical holds were lifted. The trials started back up. CymaBay’s shares regained their value and more. In March 2024, Gilead acquired CymaBay and seladelpar for $4.3 billion in total equity value. Most importantly, there is a promising new treatment for PBC on the horizon.

“Patient stories were the biggest motivator for me during these difficult times, I learned that many of them had been doing well and feeling better than ever before on seladelpar—it was all the fuel I needed,” Shah says.

Trained as a biomedical engineer at Northwestern University, Shah originally thought he would become a physician, but instead pursued research. After earning his master’s degree in biomedical engineering, Shah eventually went to business school where he was drawn to healthcare investment banking.

“What attracted me was the ability to learn about the entire biotech industry, while also gaining a very concrete financial toolkit.” After rising through the ranks at Credit Suisse and then Citigroup, Shah began his search for an operating role in the industry in 2012. It was during this time that he first met the management team at Metabolex (renamed CymaBay after going public). A year later, he would join full-time as the company’s chief financial officer. 

In our interview, Shah discusses the creative financial mechanism by which he took CymaBay public, lessons learned from the challenging development of seladelpar and the rationale for his management decisions along the way. He shares advice with those in biotech, stressing the importance of letting data drive decision making. Shah admits that at a certain point you just need to have faith: “Ultimately, you must believe. Believe in yourself and in others.”

Read more of our conversation below.

What initially got you interested in science or medicine?

I have always had a propensity for math and science. The intersection of quantitative skills and human biology always seemed remarkable. However, my original goal was to go to medical school and become a physician.

When that path became challenging, I really didn’t know what to do next, so I applied to graduate school [master’s program] in biomedical engineering. I found a laboratory at Northwestern using biodegradable polymers as scaffolds for tissue regeneration. I really enjoyed the research, and at the end of the master’s program could have considered staying to complete a PhD. Yet at the time I made the decision to get a job and go into industry. I didn’t see myself working in a lab for the rest of my career and wanted some real-world experience.  

What was your first experience in industry like? What led you to business school and then investment banking?

In the several years after college, I didn’t have a lot of direction. I took a job at a startup company based in Pittsburgh, called Tissue Informatics. The company was a little bit too far ahead of its time. The mission was not dissimilar from what organizations like PathAI are now attempting with digitized slides and developing algorithms for diagnosis.

The company [Tissue Informatics] was growing, but when the tech bubble burst in 2000, financing dried up. Around this time, I applied to business school with the goal of changing the type of role I could get within biotech. During business school [at Carnegie Mellon] I interned at Roche with an interest in business development and had a full-time offer to work for them after graduation. I also gained exposure to healthcare investment banking and ultimately ended up taking a role with Credit Suisse First Boston when I finished my MBA.

What was your experience like in life sciences investment banking? What skills did you learn that helped you later?

As an investment banker, you gain exposure to many different areas of healthcare and within biotech, many different therapeutic areas. What attracted me to the field was the ability to learn about the industry, while also gaining a very concrete financial toolkit and exposure to capital markets. The transactional experiences in banking later proved to be vital during my 12 years at CymaBay.

The hours [in banking] were intense, but it really does drill into you discipline and a particular skillset: if you asked me to build a three-statement financial model or merger model I could probably still do it, even now! The 100-plus hour work weeks also toughen you up, which came in handy during later parts of my career at CymaBay.

I also learned that the heart of our industry is letting the science and data drive decision making. The best management teams are very honest internally and externally about what data is saying. There is no room for rose colored glasses—you have to be transparent, honest and clear-minded.

After your investment banking career, what led you to start working with Metabolex—the company that later became CymaBay?

After leaving investment banking, I was working as a consultant with several companies and a biotech venture capital firm. I was using this time to look for an opportunity to become Chief Financial Officer of a biotech company.

Eventually I met the team at Metabolex. The team needed financing (about $30 million) to keep the venture going and run another clinical study for an asset being developed for chronic gout. To be honest, raising this amount seemed like an insurmountable task given existing investors were reluctant to put any additional capital in the company without a new lead investor. In fact, I did not join the company initially because it was in such a tough financial position. Over the course of the following year, I helped them raise the money though as a consultant. By the time we pulled off this financing, I was so emotionally invested that I decided to join full time as CFO in 2013.

[What was the financing that you were able to pull off as a consultant and then CFO?]

After a year of trying and failing to find new investors, Metabolex had about three months’ worth of cash left by mid 2013. The board had pretty much resigned itself to bankruptcy. I remember sitting in my car and coming up with an idea. When I was working at Citi as an investment banker, there was a research analyst who left to join a company called Coronado Biosciences. At Coronado, they were able to raise about $20 million from retail investors—basically high net worth individuals where the average investment would typically be between $50,000 to $100,000 per person.

To pull this off, they used a group in New York called National Securities, which has a network of independent brokers. I decided to go to NYC with our CEO at the time to meet with some of these broker firms on behalf of Metabolex to try to raise $30M in funding. After hearing our story, National Securities felt they could raise us $15M. But first, we had to raise the other half from “smart money” biotech institutional investors. As part of this recapitalization, I also had to get J&J’s venture capital arm, JJDC, to forgive $16 million in a convertible note Metabolex owed them in exchange for $3 million of equity credit in the surviving company if we were somehow able to pull off the $30 million financing. JJDC agreed and we were subsequently able to raise $15M from existing investors and venture debt.

Once this happened, we told National Securities “Go!”, and they raised about $17 million within three weeks. The deal turned out to be a about $32M financing with a $52M post-money valuation—so the existing investors were heavily diluted. However the company survived, and we were eventually able to go public. The way in which we went public was quite unconventional—a self-registration form 10—but that is a story for another time.

What was the company’s early focus and what series of events led to the focus on primary biliary cirrhosis?

Before I joined the company, Metabolex had licensed the rights to a second-generation insulin sensitizer to J&J (Janssen). As part of that out-licensing, Janssen offered upfront cash, future milestones and royalties and a clinical asset in return.

Seladelpar, which is the drug that became the future of CymaBay, came from this deal with J&J.

Seladelpar is a selective and potent PPAR delta agonist. Well-known drugs like fenofibrates target the PPAR alpha isoform, which has an established role in LDL and triglyceride biology. Metabolex was originally interested in understanding if PPAR delta agonists could also be used for mixed dyslipidemia—liver disease was not even in the conversation at this point [early 2000s].

In addition to lowering total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol and triglycerides in patients with mixed dyslipidemia, seladelpar reduced alkaline phosphatase [ALP]. Although these patients did not have ALP above the upper limits of normal, elevated ALP produced in the liver is associated with impaired bile flow [cholestasis] in patients with primary biliary cholangitis [PBC].

Our CMO at that time recognized that ALP was being used as a surrogate endpoint for potential accelerated approval in PBC and we moved forward with a phase 2 study in this indication. The anti-cholestatic and anti-inflammatory elements of seladelpar’s mechanism of action gave us hints that the drug could perhaps be useful in treating liver diseases like primary biliary cholangitis, where ALP was part of an FDA-approved surrogate endpoint.

We decided to shift our development of seladelpar from dyslipidemia to PBC. In the PBC phase 2 trials we saw striking results: clear ALP and bilirubin reductions as well as reductions in pruritus [itching], a menacing clinical symptom of PBC. This data compelled us to pursue liver disease, where there were clearer regulatory paths. Around this time [2017] I was also asked by the board to move from the CFO to the CEO role at CymaBay.

Walk us through what happened when CymaBay got a clinical hold for seladelpar in its MASH trial.

Between 2016-2017 we started generating some interesting Phase 2 data in PBC. We began enrolling patients in a Phase 3 trial of seladelpar for PBC in December 2018. At this point, we were a $500M market cap public company.

Based on our knowledge of seladelpar’s mechanism, we also decided to run a phase 2b study of seladelpar in MASH. In this study we examined measures of liver fat as a primary endpoint, but also took liver biopsies to assess NAFLD activity score [NAS] and fibrosis. Fundamentally PPAR delta drives fatty acid oxidation, in addition to its effects on reducing bile acid synthesis, inflammation and fibrosis.

We believed that treatment would lower liver fat; so, we powered the trial to detect decreases in liver fat. At the 12-week readout, it appeared that the drug did not lower liver fat significantly compared to placebo. This was a surprise to us, and the stock took a 30% hit.  However, our phase 3 trials in PBC were still progressing according to schedule, and we thought that we may see an impact on NAS and fibrosis at the 52-week MASH trial readout.

In November 2019, our two pathologists scoring the MASH 52-week biopsies gave us an alarming call. They told us that they were seeing a significant number of patients with interface hepatitis or periportal inflammation—features that were not previously reported in MASH. It appeared that these pathologic features, which were present in almost 30% of the end of treatment biopsies scored, could have be associated with drug treatment.

Over the course of a weekend, we consulted with a number of hepatologists and MASH experts—nobody knew what to make of these findings. Was it possible that the drug was causing injury? Despite the biopsy findings, we were seeing reductions in liver injury markers and bilirubin levels in trial participants. As our hepatologists pointed out, the patients had no laboratory or clinical features of liver damage. The pathology findings did not match the overall clinical picture for these patients but we had no way to prove or disprove whether or not these findings were being caused by seladelpar.

We had a moral decision to make at that point in time—wait for more data to be analyzed or immediately halt the trial. We decided to immediately stop the study and call the FDA. On one hand this was one of the most difficult decisions to make as I knew it would likely mean the end of seladelpar and also the end of CymaBay. On the other hand it was an easy decision because I was never going to put patient safety at risk.

What happened?

Seladelpar was put on a formal clinical hold. Prior to this point, CymaBay was a $900M market cap company. The Street reacted to the news: our stock tanked to $1 a share, or a $100 million in market cap even though we had $2 a share or $200 million of cash on the balance sheet. We had to lay off two thirds of the company right before Christmas of 2019.

It was one of the worst times in my life. I felt that I had poured my soul into the company: it was all gone in a flash. I couldn’t sleep, and would lay awake at night thinking: “none of this made any sense?” I had to at least try to figure out what happened.

Given CymaBay had $200M of cash and only a $100M market cap, an activist investor bought 10% of the company—he wanted to pressure us to liquidate and thus make a quick return. He wrote a public letter calling for dissolution of the company and accusing me and the Board of not acting in the best interests of investors. I knew that we had to run an investigation to figure out what happened while we also considered strategic alternatives including liquidation as required by our fiduciary duties. Many experts told us it would take years to complete a proper investigation and that it would be impossible to ever learn anything definitive.

Despite the challenge of having to prove a negative, we launched an investigation into understanding the findings and whether or not seladelpar caused them. We assembled what I would call the “dream team” of hepatologists and hepatopathologists with significant experience in drug-induced liver injury [DILI]. We were conducting this investigation in the backdrop of a COVID pandemic and a group of activist investors trying to shut us down.

At this point, there were half a dozen investors calling me daily with accusations and threats. One [activist] even approached me in a parking lot when I was on my way to a meeting. I can smile about it now, but it was easily the most difficult time of my professional life.

A month before our annual shareholder meeting where the lead activist was positioning to get his slate of Board nominees to take over, we finished the investigation.

Here is what we found: every single one of the patients with what the study pathologists deemed was “atypical” pathology in NASH [including interface hepatitis] at the end of study biopsy readings had the same pathology in their baseline biopsies before they were dosed with seladelpar. The biopsy findings were totally independent of treatment. Subsequent retrospective analyses from other trials and patients have shown that between 25-30% of complex MASH patients can display this type of pathology—periportal inflammation or interface hepatitis—at baseline.

We shared these findings publicly and the stock tripled. A couple months later the FDA released all clinical holds. We had to enroll a brand new PBC phase 3 trial and raise another $150M. However, it was worth it: we had dozens of PBC patients come to us when we were on clinical hold saying: “I have never felt better than when I was on seladelpar, please don’t give up.” This was the biggest motivator for me during these difficult times—it was all the fuel I needed.

What are some important lessons learned during the difficult times at CymaBay?

There are many lessons I learned in my time at CymaBay: let the data drive your decision making, hold patients and unmet need as your guiding light, and do not be afraid to disagree with the “experts” if you have conviction.

When the clinical hold on seladelpar was released, the activist investor who was pressuring me to liquidate CymaBay gave me a call.

He effectively said: “Sujal I have got to hand it to you. You stuck to your convictions and you and your team are the right people to lead the company.” During the investigation period, I answered every call from every activist investor. The minute you stop answering, you add fuel to the fire. In my role as CEO it was my duty to take these calls, treat everyone with respect (no matter how challenging) and stick to our internal convictions and plan

Dylan Neel is a final-year MD/PhD candidate at Harvard Medical School. He earned his PhD in Immunology, where he studied innate immune mechanisms in neurodegenerative disease. During graduate school he worked part-time at Vida Ventures and is the Editor of the Biomarker Substack. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College, with a degree in neuroscience.

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