From big bio­phar­ma to biotech CEO, John Hous­ton’s R&D jour­ney high­lights a fast-chang­ing world

John Hous­ton spent close to 30 years in the ranks of two big bio­phar­ma R&D or­ga­ni­za­tions. There was a decade at GSK fol­lowed by 18 more years at Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb, where he built a re­sume around con­struct­ing their drug dis­cov­ery tech­nol­o­gy base and was cred­it­ed with a key role in de­vel­op­ing a range of ma­jor fran­chise drugs like Op­di­vo and Yer­voy.

Then about two years ago, in­stead of de­vel­op­ing new drugs, he was charged with lend­ing a hand at shut­ting down two big re­search sites in Seat­tle and Walling­ford, CT, while BMS set its sights on a new R&D cen­ter in Cam­bridge.

And he found that he didn’t like the re­struc­tur­ing world so much.

“I de­cid­ed it was not what I want­ed to do, to con­tin­ue to close sites and han­dle the tran­si­tion,” Hous­ton tells me. So he left Bris­tol-My­ers in the sum­mer of 2016, join­ing the mi­gra­tion out of the big com­pa­ny R&D world to see what else bio­phar­ma might have in store for him.

Ear­ly this year, that quest led to the CSO’s job at Arv­inas in New Haven, where the team is work­ing on new pro­tein degra­da­tion tech orig­i­nal­ly de­vel­oped in the lab of Yale’s Craig Crews. (“It was ex­act­ly the role I want­ed.”) And this morn­ing — fol­low­ing the de­par­ture of CEO Man­ny Litch­man for Mus­tang last spring — Hous­ton has been giv­en the helm as a new­ly mint­ed biotech CEO.

Hous­ton’s tran­si­tion high­lights the boom­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties of a fast-grow­ing US biotech in­dus­try, which has proven to be siren song for a le­gion of ex­pe­ri­enced bio­phar­ma R&D ex­ecs who’ve grown dis­en­chant­ed with their old roles, where re­struc­tur­ing is of­ten the or­der of the day. Hous­ton’s seen it all around New Haven, where new com­pa­nies like Bio­haven have sourced teams from Bris­tol-My­ers’ dis­card­ed op­er­a­tions.

“The ex­cite­ment of mov­ing in­to a biotech, where you can get things done quick­er and have an im­pact, is clear­ly an at­trac­tion,” says Hous­ton. In a start­up biotech, you’re not “weight­ed down by a de­ci­sion-mak­ing bu­reau­cra­cy. Al­so, you want to see new chal­lenges, add val­ue, and cre­at­ing the set­ting gives you a huge pos­si­bil­i­ty to do that.”

Hous­ton’s world now is dom­i­nat­ed by the 46 staffers at Arv­inas who are push­ing two lead drugs for an­dro­gen and es­tro­gen re­cep­tor degra­da­tion for prostate and breast can­cer from the pre­clin­i­cal ef­fort in­to the clin­ic. They’re work­ing on a pair of INDs — with the help of around 80 chemists spread out among WuXi and oth­er Asian con­tract re­search groups — and look­ing to get in­to the clin­ic at the end of 2018.

Hous­ton, who used to run neu­ro­sciences at Bris­tol-My­ers, is al­so more than a lit­tle thrilled to be set­ting up a pre­clin­i­cal pro­tein degra­da­tion pro­gram for tau, one of the key tar­gets in the Alzheimer’s world.

Some­where along the way now, Arv­inas Chair­man Tim Shan­non — a gen­er­al part­ner at Canaan — will look to see how best to arrange the next fundrais­ing for the com­pa­ny, which he says is fund­ed through Q2.

Arv­inas is a ven­ture-backed com­pa­ny, and ven­ture-backed com­pa­nies tend to fol­low a path where you con­cen­trate on deals (Arv­inas is part­nered with a cou­ple of the best: Genen­tech and Mer­ck)  and con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ties of an IPO or a buy­out if the right of­fer comes along.

“The main fo­cus is to grow the com­pa­ny to the point where it can be seen as a valu­able med­ical pro­duc­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion,” says Hous­ton.

And he couldn’t be hap­pi­er.

Aerial view of Genentech's campus in South San Francisco [Credit: Getty]

Genen­tech sub­mits a big plan to ex­pand its South San Fran­cis­co foot­print

The sign is still there, a quaint reminder of whitewashed concrete not 5 miles from Genentech’s sprawling, chrome-and-glass campus: South Francisco The Industrial City. 

The city keeps the old sign, first erected in 1923, as a tourist site and a kind of civic memento to the days it packed meat, milled lumber and burned enough steel to earn the moniker “Smokestack of the Peninsula.” But the real indication of where you are and how much has changed both in San Francisco and in the global economy since a couple researchers and investors rented out an empty warehouse 40 years ago comes in a far smaller blue sign, resembling a Rotary Club post, off the highway: South San Francisco, The Birthplace of Biotech.

Here comes the oral GLP-1 drug for di­a­betes — but No­vo Nordisk is­n't dis­clos­ing Ry­bel­sus price just yet

Novo Nordisk’s priority review voucher on oral semaglutide has paid off. The FDA approval for the GLP-1 drug hit late Friday morning, around six months after the NDA filing.

Rybelsus will be the first GLP-1 pill to enter the type 2 diabetes market — a compelling offering that analysts have pegged as a blockbuster drug with sales estimates ranging from $2 billion to $5 billion.

Ozempic, the once-weekly injectable formulation of semaglutide, brought in around $552 million (DKK 3.75 billion) in the first half of 2019.

As Nas­daq en­rolls the fi­nal batch of 2019 IPOs, how have the num­bers com­pared to past years?

IGM Biosciences’ upsized IPO haul, coming after SpringWorks’ sizable public debut, has revved up some momentum for the last rush of biotech IPOs in 2019.

With 39 new listings on the books and roughly two more months to go before winding down, Nasdaq’s head of healthcare listings Jordan Saxe sees the exchange marking 50 to 60 biopharma IPOs for the year.

“December 15 is usually the last possible day that companies will price,” he said, as companies get ready for business talks at the annual JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in January.

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Oxitec biologist releases genetically modified mosquitoes in Piracicaba, Brazil in 2016 [credit: Getty Images]

In­trex­on unit push­es back against claims its GM mos­qui­toes are mak­ing dis­ease-friend­ly mu­tants

When the hysteria of Zika transmission sprang into the American zeitgeist a few years ago, UK-based Oxitec was already field-testing its male Aedes aegypti mosquito, crafted to possess a gene engineered to obliterate its progeny long before maturation.

But when a group of independent scientists evaluated the impact of the release of these genetically-modified mosquitoes in a trial conducted by Oxitec in Brazil between 2013 and 2015, they found that some of the offspring had managed to survive — prompting them to speculate what impact the survivors could have on disease transmission and/or insecticide resistance.

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Pur­due threat­ens to walk away from set­tle­ment, asks to pay em­ploy­ees mil­lions in bonus­es

There are two updates on the lawsuit against Purdue Pharma over its role in fueling the opioid epidemic, as the Sackler family threatens to walk away from their pledge to pay out $3 billion if a bankruptcy judge does not stop outstanding state lawsuits against them. At the same time, the company has asked permission to pay millions in bonuses to select employees.

Purdue filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy this week as part of its signed resolution to over 2,000 lawsuits. The deal would see the Sackler family that owns Purdue give $3 billion from their personal wealth and the company turned into a trust committed to curbing and reversing overdoses.

David Grainger [file photo]

'Dis­con­nect the bas­tard­s' — one biotech's plan to break can­cer cell­s' uni­fied de­fens­es

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are the current gladiators of cancer treatment, but they come with well-known limitations and side-effects. The emergence of immunotherapy — a ferocious new titan in oncologist’s toolbox — takes the brakes off the immune system to kill cancer cells with remarkable success in some cases, but the approach is not always effective. What makes certain forms of cancer so resilient? Scientists may have finally pieced together a tantalizing piece of the puzzle, and a new biotech is banking on a new approach to fill the gap.

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A fa­vorite in Alex­ion’s C-suite is leav­ing, and some mighty sur­prised an­a­lysts aren’t the least bit hap­py about it

Analysts hate to lose a biotech CFO they’ve come to trust and admire — especially if they’re being blindsided by a surprise exit.

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Scott Gottlieb, AP Images

Scott Got­tlieb is once again join­ing a team that en­joyed good times at the FDA un­der his high-en­er­gy stint at the helm

Right after jumping on Michael Milken’s FasterCures board on Monday, the newly departed FDA commissioner is back today with news about another life sciences board post that gives him a ringside chair to cheer on a lead player in the real-world evidence movement — one with very close ties to the FDA.

Aetion is reporting this morning that Gottlieb is joining their board, a group that includes Mohamad Makhzoumi, a general partner at New Enterprise Associates, where Gottlieb returned after stepping out of his role at the FDA 2 years after he started.

Gottlieb — one of the best connected execs in biopharma — knows this company well. As head of FDA he championed the use of real-world evidence to help guide drug developers and the agency in gaining greater efficiencies, which helped set up Aetion as a high-profile player in the game.

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While No­var­tis ban­ish­es Zol­gens­ma scan­dal scars — Bio­gen goes on a Spin­raza 'of­fen­sive'

While Novartis painstakingly works to mop up the stench of the data manipulation scandal associated with its expensive gene therapy for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) Zolgensma— rival Biogen is attempting to expand the use of its SMA therapy, Spinraza. 

The US drugmaker $BIIB secured US approval for Spinraza for use in the often fatal genetic disease in 2016. The approval covered a broad range of patients with infantile-onset (most likely to develop Type 1) SMA.