Dorothee Kern’s path from basketball star to founder of billion-dollar biotech(s?); Five Prime Therapeutics hands the reins to Genentech vet
I assure you that I did not plan to do this. I wanted to write a little story about proteins and cancer, nuclear magnetic imaging and a scientist turned entrepeneur of billion-dollar biotechs. Maybe a touch on communist East Germany. A sprinkle on her (what I assumed had been) past life as a world-class athlete. I did not — would not — plan on writing a story about someone succeeding “on-the-court and off-the-court,” a story held together by what I assumed would have to be forced parallels between basketball and science.
And then I spoke to Dorothee Kern, and the first thing she told me to explain her work was a basketball analogy, one about her own game. And when I followed up, asking about any connection between basketball and why she got into biotech, her second response is: “I want to win and cure patients … there’s this competitive spirit, but you want to win the championship, you have to get drugs on the market.”
The first response was about an analogy between the proteins she watches being in motion and she herself being in constant motion. “Shooting for the win” was also mentioned.
“There’s a reason they call me the protein dynamics lady!” she said.
Basketball is indeed about as fundamental to Kern as her science. She calls the sport “her ATP” — and she has a lot of ATP, her frame built like an athlete and her words spoken with the frenetic energy befitting of someone who goes by “Doro.”
The competition, I learned, never actually became a thing of the past. This summer she had planned to return with the German team to the FIMBA Maxibasketball European Championship to defend their title. Covid-19 ended that, so for excitement, Kern, a professor of biochemistry at Brandeis University, will have to settle for the launch of her second biotech: MOMA Therapeutics, which emerged this week out of Third Rock with an $86 million Series A and a focus on a versatile class of proteins called molecular machines. Her first biotech, founded in 2016, had emerged with a $57 million Series A and later attracted a $400 million Softbank-led Series C.
The new one, she said, will be even bigger. Or at least the science will be.
“I compare these molecular machines and MOMA to a power of 3 to what has been done so far,” Kern said. “Nobody has done this. It’s on a whole different scale.”
Kern grew up in communist East Germany, the daughter of two high-minded biochemists who considered biochemistry a dinner-table topic of choice and who refused to cooperate with the communists or their secret police, the Stasi. That rectitude would cost her father a promotion and her mother her job and, with high school reserved for party loyalists, could have cost Kern her education. Except that Kern had just made the junior national basketball team. Her parents convinced the government that was a public service, one worthy of an exception.
Basketball provided a way into the system. Science, Kern said, provided a refuge from that system, from a dictatorial government that wrote the textbooks to suit whatever version of events they thought expedient. For a naturally curious student, it was the only field that looked like it could provide real answers.
“Everything was twisted, there was no truth being told in all the other subjects: history, economics and business, the humanities,” Kern said. “The one thing they couldn’t twist was 2+2=4.”
One day in 1987, future Noble Prize winner Kurt Wüthrich gave a lecture at the Leopoldina, a centuries-year old learned society where East German scientists could still hear visiting lectures from the West. At the time, X-ray crystallography — the same technique that led to the discovery of the double helix — had become the hottest thing in biochemistry, with journal after journal plastering their front pages with new images of molecules, black-and-white still lifes of the chemical world. This was exciting but it also struck Kern as fundamentally lacking.
“The whole beauty of enzymes is that they actually move,” Kern said. “And if they don’t move they are dead. There’s a reason life doesn’t exist below 180 kelvin.”
In a brief aside, Wüthrich mentioned nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a different technique he had developed to take pictures of atoms. Sitting in the audience, Kern realized she could use the same techniques to take pictures of molecules and specifically proteins in motions, what she calls “real-time movies.”
East Germany, though, lacked the tools needed for these experiments. They were like kids’ toys, she said, in comparison to Western equipment, and early on she could only study substrates, little shards off the overall whole. Then the Berlin Wall fell. She became a fellow in Sweden, a post-doc in Berkeley. She began to make her movies, illuminating invisible particles that moved on millisecond scales.
“It was a dream come true,” she said. She compared it to going from pickup basketball to the world championships.
(Kern, meanwhile, had never given up basketball, playing on the German national team until she left and continuing to school guys half her age in Boston five days a week. I asked her if she ever had thought about choosing one or the other, pointing out that the time commitments of being a graduate student or scientist and a national basketball player. “Absolutely not,” she said. “I get bored quickly. I love multi-tasking.”)
Her motion work would bring accolades and a professorship at Brandeis. Eventually, between 2012 and 2014, she started to learn how to link those proteins’ movement with their function. She began to study allosteric sites — spots of a protein away from the binding site (where most drugs are targeted) that can nonetheless affect the overall function of the molecule. It was the kind of how-things-work understanding her entire career had been building to.
It was also the kind of information that could be used to build drugs. Kern, who had always been too concerned with discovering how things work to go into biotech, booked a meeting with Third Rock Ventures.
Before a dozen executives, she pulled out her laptop and played Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” while the little dots in a protein diagram pulsed to the beat. She offered no financial or revenue projections. Nevertheless, she proposed a biotech that would channel her 30 years of research on protein motion into treatments for cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. “Dance,” she called it, after her ‘dancing’ proteins.
“Yes,” Third Rock said. And then, with Justin Timberlake-from-The Social Network flair: “Just change the name.”
Relay Therapeutics now says they are on the verge of the clinic, although they have not revealed any targets or drug candidates and no “pipeline” is listed on their site. Working there changed Kern. She still cared deeply about fundamental discoveries, she said, but the potential to help patients was “eye-opening.”
The newest venture, MOMA, was a Third Rock idea. Kern acknowledges that of the founding team of her, Timur Yuzusafi, Eva Nogales and Johannes Walter, she has the least direct experience with the science at the biotech’s center, but in many ways it builds off work she has done for decades. The new biotech focuses on molecular machines — proteins that are unique in their size and their degree of movement, shape-shifting over and over again to carry out their tasks.
That size and nimbleness also makes them difficult to study. Never mind crystallography, that old technique that came in vogue as Kern was an undergrad. Many of these proteins don’t crystallize. How to build, screen and inhibit them are still open questions.
Those aspects are also what make them so exciting. They do so much, and that opens up a world of potential drugs.
“Where they are involved is just mind-boggling,” Kern said. “You could build a large pharma company around this going forward.”
— Jason Mast
→ After recently striking a $350 million deal with Biogen to work on Alzheimer’s and with their first product candidate soon entering a Phase III trial, genomic medicine company Sangamo Therapeutics has wooed GSK vet D. Mark McClung as EVP and CBO. Prior to hopping aboard Sangamo, McClung served as VP and general manager of global oncology commercial at Amgen. McClung joined Amgen from Onyx Pharmaceuticals, where he was CCO. During his two decades at GSK, McClung served in various roles including VP and head of global commercial for GSK Oncology.
In addition, Stephane Boissel, the company’s EVP of corporate strategy, will be hitting the exit at the end of July, returning to an entrepreneurial project. Boissel joined the company in 2018 after serving as CEO of TxCell (now Sangamo France).
→ Five Prime Therapeutics, which has struggled through a period of tumult because of layoffs and setbacks with its drug cabiralizumab, has brought on Tom Civik to be its CEO. He replaces William Ringo, who was named interim CEO in September after the resignation of Aron Knickerbocker. An industry veteran of more than a quarter-century, Civik arrives at the Bay Area oncology biotech from Foundation Medicine, where he was CCO. During his 17 years at Genentech, Civik commercialized such therapies as Avastin, Tarceva, Tecentriq and Alecensa as VP and franchise head.
→ As reported earlier in the week, Bob is back. Bob Duggan will be CEO at Summit Therapeutics, effective immediately, while remaining chairman of the antibiotics-focused British biotech’s board. Glyn Edwards’ resignation paves the way for Duggan to take over, and as Summit’s leading shareholder, the billionaire entrepreneur won’t receive compensation. Duggan was previously CEO of Pharmacyclics, which he sold to AbbVie in 2015 for $21 billion, and before that was CEO at Computer Motion.
→ After finishing up his final lap at Adaptimmune, James Noble has hopped aboard the board of directors as chairman at Orexo AB. Noble founded Adaptimmune in 2014 and finally handed the reins over to GSK vet Adrian Rawcliffe last summer. Previously, Noble served as co-CEO of Immunocore.
→ Boston biotech Cardurion Pharmaceuticals, which focuses on treatments for cardiovascular diseases, has appointed Peter Lawrence as president and CEO. For 14 years, Lawrence had been president and COO of ArQule, which was sold to Merck in January. Before ArQule, he was the founder and general partner of Pod Venture Partners. Lawrence succeeds interim CEO Michael Mendelsohn, who will stay on as chairman of Cardurion’s board of directors.
→ In March, Mesa Biotech got emergency authorization from the FDA to do rapid coronavirus testing. This week, the San Diego startup has tapped Ingo Chakravarty as president and CEO, succeeding co-founder Hong Cai. Before beginning his tenure at Mesa Biotech, Chakravarty was president and CEO of NAVICAN Genomics and also had an array of leadership positions at GenMark Diagnostics, Gen-Probe, Roche and Ventana Medical Systems.
→ Axel Hoos, the SVP, R&D governance chair and therapeutic area head for oncology at GSK, is joining the board of directors at immunotherapy biotech TCR2 Therapeutics. Hoos has also been global medical lead in immunology and oncology at Bristol Myers Squibb.
→ Jean-Pierre Wery has been appointed executive chairman of the board at CrownBio, a preclinical oncology CRO out of San Diego. Wery will also be chief technology officer for JSR Life Sciences, which acquired CrownBio in 2018. Wery was CrownBio’s CEO for four years, and his successor, Armin Spura, assumed the role April 1. Spura takes the reins after briefly serving as VP, Asia Pacific & Greater China for CareDx. He also took on leadership roles at Life Technologies and Thermo Fisher Scientific.
→ Ohana Biosciences has enlisted former GSK exec Ramiro Castro-Santamaria as CMO. During his 14 year stint at GSK, Castro-Santamaria most recently served as VP of clinical sciences and head of rheumatology. Prior to that, he served at Boehringer Ingelheim and Pharmacia (later Pfizer).
→ As clinical programs progress with LSD-1 inhibitor bomedemstat, San Francisco-based Imago Biosciences, which targets bone marrow diseases, has chosen Edgardo Baracchini as CBO. Baracchini held the same post at Xencor for eight years. He was also head of business development at Metabasis Therapeutics from 2002 until 2009, when it merged with Ligand Pharmaceuticals.
→ Having closed its $33 million Series B and brought on CMO and head of R&D Christopher Haqq in October, Elicio Therapeutics has named Esther Welkowsky VP, clinical operations. Prior to her arrival at Elicio, which centers on amphiphile immunotherapies, Welkowsky served as executive director of clinical operations at Allogene. She was also a contributor to such NDA filings as Zytiga, Yondelis, Avastin, Raptiva and Lucentis.
→ Adam Saltman has stepped away from the FDA to become the CMO at Eko, which works in cardiac and pulmonary care. While at the FDA, Saltman was a medical officer at the Center for Devices and Radiological Health. He was also a cardiothoracic surgeon at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York and the University of Massachusetts.
→ Cellia Habita has made the leap to Immodulon Therapeutics as CMO. Before moving over to the British immuno-oncology company, Habita was president and CEO of Arianne Clinical Research. Other roles before her time with Arianne include director of product development at Immusol and VP and SVP of clinical and medical affairs at Adventrx.
→ As reported this week, Mei Pharma announced a $682.5 million partnership, including $100 million upfront, with Kyowa Kirin targeting PI3K. Also this week, Cheryl Cohen has joined Mei’s board of directors. Cohen is the founder and president of CLC Consulting and was also CCO of Medivation. She’s also held posts at J&J companies Centocor and Health Care Systems, Inc.
→ After boosting their coffers with an amended CAR-T deal with Servier in February, Cellectis has tapped former Celgene exec Carrie Brownstein as CMO. During her time at Celgene, Brownstein most recently served as VP, global clinical research and development, therapeutic area head for myeloid diseases. Prior to her role at Celgene, Brownstein held a post at Roche.
→ Neil Graham has signed on at Evelo Biosciences as the Cambridge, MA biotech’s chief development officer. Prior to his move to Evelo, which focuses on monoclonal microbials to fight cancer, Graham was VP, strategic program direction, immunology and inflammation at Regeneron for the last decade. He was also SVP, program and portfolio management at Vertex.
→ PTC Therapeutics, which now has to wait a little longer for the FDA’s review of risdiplam for SMA, has made two changes to its leadership team, with Eric Pauwels and Matthew Klein stepping in as CBO and chief development officer, respectively. In 2015, Pauwels joined PTC as SVP and GM of the Americas. Klein was previously CEO and CMO of BioElectron Technology Corporation.
→ CytoDyn, developing CCR5 antagonist leronlimab (PRO 140), has named Scott Kelly as CMO and head of business development. Kelly joined CytoDyn in April 2017 as a director and has served as chairman of the board since December 2018. Kelly will continue to serve his duties as chairman. Prior to joining the company, Kelly served at Resurgens Orthopaedics.
→ Arix Bioscience has been occupying its share of this space lately, and this week is no different. Jonathan Tobin, currently the investment director at Arix in London, has climbed into the role of managing director, effective immediately. Changes have also been made to the investment team, including the promotion of investment associate John Cassidy to principal.
→ TRACON Pharmaceuticals has welcomed Shahe Garabedian to its team as SVP of quality assurance. Before joining the San Diego biopharma, Garabedian built his quality assurance bona fides at Arena Pharmaceuticals (VP of quality), Invitrogen (VP, quality assurance and GxP compliance) and SUGEN (executive director and head of quality assurance).
→ Cytel, which provides clinical research services and software solutions for the design and analysis of clinical trials, has named Thomas Bregenzer global head of biostatistics. Bregenzer was at Parexel for more than 21 years, most recently as senior director, EU head of biostatistics and statistical programming.
→ GNS Healthcare has introduced Earl Steinberg as chief of its health plan division to “advance the company’s health plan offerings and drive clinical analytics efforts across GNS, particularly within biopharma market-access and value-based drug collaborations between biopharma and payers.” Steinberg comes to GNS after being co-founder and CEO of xG Health Solutions.