Novartis research leader takes the helm at Forty Seven, a CIRM-backed fledgling already deep in the clinic
Menlo Park, CA-based Forty Seven launched well ahead of the game compared to most any other biotech upstart. When the company was spun out of the lab of Stanford’s legendary Irv Weissman a year ago with a $75 million Series A from a syndicate including Google’s venture arm, their anti-CD47 antibody Hu5F9-G4 was already in a pair of early-stage trials. And last week the company added an impressive CEO, grabbing Novartis’ head of biosimilar development at Sandoz, Mark McCamish, for the helm.
McCamish will be leading a team that includes scientific founders Ravi Majeti, Mark Chao and Jens Volkmer, who had been working on CD47 at Stanford for the six years leading up to the launch — a time that has drawn some scrutiny for the close ties that existed between Weissman and Alan Trounson, the former head of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, which has provided more than $40 million in funding for the early research work on the biotech’s CD47 program.
“Forty Seven has made unprecedented progress to date based on the remarkable science initiated by the world-class efforts of Dr. Irv Weissman and Dr. Ravi Majeti and their combined team at Stanford University. In addition, (Abingworth vet) Jonathan MacQuitty has assembled an amazing team at the company,” said McCamish in a statement. “Forty Seven’s technology provides a unique opportunity to harness the power of the innate immune system to help patients defeat their own cancer.”
And now Hu5F9-G4 is in 4 studies in the US and the UK in patients with solid tumors or cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, acute myeloid leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and colorectal carcinoma.
CD47 scrambles a key immune response that helps guard a range of tumor types by preventing a process called phagocytosis, in which the cancer cells are devoured by a phagocyte. That’s what the researchers call a “don’t eat me” effect. The treatment also promises to whip up a T-cell attack on cancer, fitting in to a range of immuno-oncology programs.
Forty Seven is where it is today because of Weissman’s remarkably close relationship with the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a taxpayer supported group that set out to fire up a revolution in the use of stem cells to fight disease.
Back in 2009, Weissman scored a $20 million grant for his work on CD47 with four years of funding for his preclinical research on AML. Another $12.7 million arrived in 2013, heralded by CIRM’s Trounson — who took over the agency in 2007 — as “the sharp end of the CIRM program – we need to get therapies into clinical trials.”
A week after Trounson left the helm of CIRM in 2014, after CIRM had provided more than $30 million in support to Weissman’s CD47 work, he wound up side by side with Weissman on the board of StemCells, which the Stanford professor had also founded, and which CIRM had provided millions in grants.
In 2015, Trounson would get $100,000 in compensation from StemCells, according to an SEC filing. The year before, it was $343,000 — several times more than any other director — for only part of the year. StemCells foundered, like many other stem cell ventures, and was later taken over, wiping out any value from CIRM’s investment.
Those ties between Weissman and Trounson stirred up a small scandal at the time, almost entirely because of the StemCells compensation, with the online California Stem Cell Report taking the lead.
Not much attention, though, has been paid to Trounson’s support for Weissman’s other company in the making. CIRM, though, continues to be a big supporter well after Trounson’s departure. Even after the big A round CIRM came in with another grant. After coming up with a new strategy to back clinical trials, following years of criticism that nothing much was coming from billions in new taxpayer backed investments, CIRM came up with a new slate of investments.
Forty Seven was first in line, getting a $10.2 million grant.
McCamish, the latest in a long line of Novartis execs to leave the company, takes over one of the best financed biotechs in the Bay Area.