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.

Dan Skovronsky, Eli Lilly CSO

UP­DAT­ED: An­a­lysts are quick to pan Eli Lil­ly's puz­zling first cut of pos­i­tive clin­i­cal da­ta for its Covid-19 an­ti­body

Eli Lilly spotlighted a success for one of 3 doses of their closely-watched Covid-19 antibody drug Wednesday morning. But analysts quickly highlighted some obvious anomalies that could come back to haunt the pharma giant as it looks for an emergency use authorization to launch marketing efforts.

The pharma giant reported that LY-CoV555, developed in collaboration with AbCellera, significantly reduced the rate of hospitalization among patients who were treated with the antibody. The drug arm of the study had a 1.7% hospitalization rate, compared to 6% in the control group, marking a 72% drop in risk.

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Sean Bo­hen's break from bio­phar­ma is over. The ex-As­traZeneca CMO has re­tired his Big Phar­ma jer­sey and is now — hap­pi­ly — run­ning a lit­tle biotech

The last I had heard about Sean Bohen, he had stepped out of his high-profile job as chief medical officer at AstraZeneca at the beginning of 2019 as CEO Pascal Soriot triggered a broad-ranging R&D shakeup. And then, earlier this week, I got a chance to catch up.

It turns out that Bohen decided at the time that he would not just jump into a new job in the booming biopharma business. As an oncologist, he had worked on the big programs at AstraZeneca, and before that he was at Genentech. That was good for a ticket to just about anyplace in the big biopharma world. But he felt it was time to stop and think things through.

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Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) (Tasos Katopodis/Pool via AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: A mi­cro-cap with a po­ten­tial­ly promis­ing coro­n­avirus drug en­lists mask-skep­tic con­gress­man for DSMB

A small biotech that has talked up a potentially promising but unproven treatment for Covid-19 enlisted an unusual member for its study’s Data and Safety Monitoring Board: a sitting Republican congressman with close ties to the CEO and a history of mask skepticism.

NeuroRx, an Israeli biotech testing a lung inflammation drug in Covid-19 patients, tapped Maryland Rep. Andy Harris for the DSMB, Politico reported. Harris is an anesthesiologist but not a biostatistician, and he has questioned the CDC about a “cult of masks” in the US. Harris has known NeuroRx CEO Jonathan Javitt since the two worked at Johns Hopkins together over 20 years ago.

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#ES­MO20: Alk­er­mes of­fers their first snap­shot of a ben­e­fit for their next-gen IL-2 drug. But why did 1 pa­tient starve to death?

Everyone in the cancer R&D arena is looking to build new franchises around better drugs and combos. And one busy pocket of that space is centered entirely on creating an IL-2 drug that can be as effective as the original without the toxicity that damned it to the sidelines.

Alkermes $ALKS formally tossed its hat into the ring of contenders at virtual ESMO today, highlighting the first glimpse of efficacy for their candidate, ALKS 4230, as both a monotherapy as well as in combination with Merck’s Keytruda.

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Albert Bourla (Photo by Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)

Pfiz­er match­es Mod­er­na with their full Covid-19 tri­al blue­print — As­traZeneca says it will un­veil its pro­to­col 'short­ly'

Yesterday, after sustained public pressure as Moderna released its Phase III Covid-19 trial blueprint, Pfizer released its own full trial design for their vaccine trials. The move was designed to boost transparency and shore up public trust in the vaccines, but it also revealed differences in how the two companies are approaching the much-watched studies while failing to satisfy the demands of the fiercest advocates for transparency.

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Stronger to­geth­er? Boehringer and Mi­rati team to put first KRAS-KRAS com­bo in the clin­ic

Researchers are still waiting to see how much any of the vaunted KRAS drugs now in the clinic can, after decades of preclinical research and some early human studies, help patients. But while they do, two of the leading developers will look to see whether a KRAS-KRAS combo might pose a better shot than any KRAS alone.

Boehringer Ingelheim and Mirati have signed a collaboration to combine Mirati’s closely-watched lead KRAS inhibitor, MRTX849, in a clinical trial with the pan-KRAS blocker that Boehringer has quietly developed with high expectations behind their flashier contenders.

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#ES­MO20: Re­gen­eron, Sanofi eye an­oth­er first for their PD-1 con­tender Lib­tayo with promis­ing da­ta for on­col­o­gy niche

Regeneron and Sanofi took another step forward in the long march towards a greatly expanded market for their late-bloomer PD-1 checkpoint Libtayo.

The two occasional allies posted an objective response rate of 31% for Libtayo among 84 patients suffering from advanced cases of basal cell carcinoma at virtual ESMO. That spotlights progress for 26 patients, 5 of whom had a complete response. The data also reflect a boost in the number of responses seen from the last cut of the numbers.

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A long­time Cy­tomX ex­ec re-emerges at Syn­thekine, an $82M Stan­ford spin­out

Debanjan Ray apparently had big plans when he quietly left his long-held CFO spot at CytomX back in March 2019. He had gotten his own biotech.

Still in its early stages at the time, that biotech, known as Synthekine, is now ready to start talking. They are breaking out of stealth mode today with $82 million in Series A funding led by Canaan Partners, Samsara BioCapital and The Column Group, and plans to rapidly bring a handful of engineered cytokines, including a rejigged IL-2, into the clinic.

Albert Bourla, Pfizer CEO (Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)

Pfiz­er ex­ecs con­fi­dent­ly tap their top 10 block­busters-to-be. But what are the chances of sur­viv­ing PhI­II, let alone hit­ting these big peak sales es­ti­mates?

Pfizer’s top executive team doesn’t lack for confidence.

Where many Big Pharmas would be reluctant to put a peak sales figure on their late-stage drugs, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla has shrugged off the usual diffidence to outline where the pharma giant expects to get $15 billion-plus.

The list, outlined this week during their investor presentations, is topped by 3 drugs in the $3 billion-plus peak sales category. They are:

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