An AbbVie clinical vet heading early oncology jumps ship to build his own team at NK cell-focused biotech
Making the leap from a mid-sized biotech into the ranks of pharma can be a chafing experience for executives used to a more flexible work environment — and that jump gets even harder during an acquisition. For Thorsten Graef, a clinical veteran who transitioned from Pharmacyclics into AbbVie, the move was a learning experience in terms of what sort of team he wanted to run.
Now, he’s getting his chance.
Graef, formerly AbbVie’s head of early oncology development, has leapt over to NK cell player Acepodia to helm the small team’s clinical program as it walks its lead drug through early human tests, Acepodia said Tuesday.
Graef comes aboard after two years at AbbVie proper preceded by nearly seven years at Pharmacyclics, the maker of blood cancer med Imbruvica, which the Illinois drug giant acquired for $21 billion back in 2015. Graef had just assumed the head of clinical development role in December 2014 when AbbVie pounced and watched the Pharmacyclics team grow from about 80 employees into a commercial outfit that operated independently from the AbbVie borg but has since been fully consumed.
Making that transition into a role at a global drugmaker was a tough one for Graef, who longed for the opportunity to build and lead his own clinical team. In Acepodia, Graef, who sports more than 20 years of experience in the clinic, saw an opportunity to get in early on exciting science and shape a constantly growing clinical team in his own image.
“As a drug developer, having the chance to be one of the first and having the chance to take this company through mid- to long-term milestones was very appealing,” Graef said.
Acepodia comes with an exciting — if complex — tech platform, conjugating antibodies with off-the-shelf natural killer cells to offer a new path to cracking tumor cells. The biotech’s lead program, dubbed ACE1702, is currently in a Phase I study targeting HER2-expressing solid tumors. The first patient was dosed last August, and topline data are expected at this year’s ESMO.
Meanwhile, the drugmaker has three other candidates at the preclinical stage with hopes to take those over the threshold into humans in the coming years. Next week, Acepodia will officially unveil its next two lead candidates, another NK-line candidate and a donor-derived, gamma delta T cell product, at an upcoming cell therapy meeting, adding even more stakes to the company’s growing portfolio. For Graef, that means rapidly scaling up a clinical team to handle those projects as well as being prepared for what else comes through the pipeline.
“Building a team is more work, but it’s also more interesting work,” Graef said. “Particularly in this field, there’s a lot of interest. There’s already some good clinical set up and a good foundation. Ideally, you want to have some people with some passion and create a mix of newcomers to the industry who are really excited and fill that out with people who have some industry skills.”
Meanwhile, Acepodia, which has offices in both San Mateo, CA, and Taiwan, has been fleshing out the rest of its C-suite in anticipation of more trials. In conjunction with Graef’s hire, the team added Michael Brock as chief strategy officer. Brock comes with 20 years of strategic healthcare investment banking experience, including a 10-year stint as a managing director in Wells Fargo Securities’ Healthcare Investment Banking group.
The company recently announced the hires of Jimmy Lai as chief financial officer and Anita Kawatra as an advisor on corporate affairs.