Celldex CEO Treks From NJ to Massachusetts in Pursuit of Antibody Drugs for Cancer

Xconomy Boston — 

Every other week, Celldex Therapeutics CEO Anthony Marucci drives four hours and 15 minutes from home in northern New Jersey to his company’s headquarters in Needham, MA. He’s racked up 60,000 miles on his Mercedes-Benz E-class going back and forth.

It sounds like the sort of extreme measure an executive might take on a temporary basis, but this is actually the new routine for the head of this small public company that’s been stitched together across two states. Celldex (NASDAQ: CLDX) was founded five years ago as a spinout from a research division of Medarex near Phillipsburg, NJ. The company took its current shape over the past couple years with acquisitions of Needham, MA-based Avant Immunotherapeutics, and Branford, CT-based Curagen. The end result is a public company with 93 employees, including 68 at sites in Needham and Fall River, MA.

After Celldex acquired Avant in 2008, the decision was made to keep Avant’s Needham offices as the headquarters. “It looks like a headquarters, feels like a headquarters. And it costs like a headquarters,” Marucci says with a laugh.

Oh, he’s tried other ways of commuting. Like flying from Newark to Logan. That experience started to make the E-Class, with the “clean-diesel” engine, start to look pretty good. “Newark to Boston is a bear. It’s actually 15 minutes faster for me to drive than to fly. It costs $600 for a plane ticket, and there’s always a delay. Then when you land you get a cab. And you need a car to go back and forth from work while you’re there. So from a cost basis, it makes sense for me to get in the car and drive.”

Celldex’s corporate strategy has begun to solidfy at the same time as Marucci’s commuting strategy has. Through the acquisitions, Celldex has assembled a pipeline of five experimental drugs that are in, or ready for, clinical trials. It has capabilities to make targeted antibody drugs, antibodies that are bound with toxins to make them more potent, vaccines, and drugs that activate or suppress the immune system in combination with other treatments.

Anthony Marucci

Anthony Marucci

Celldex’s lead candidate in the clinic, CDX-110, is being developed in a partnership with Pfizer. The drug is an immune-system simulator for patients with a common type of brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme. The bigger company is controlling development of this one—and earned that right after paying $50 million upfront—so Marucci didn’t have much to say about when investors might see results from an ongoing Phase II trial.

Further back in the pipeline, Celldex has some work going on that has flown below investors’ radar. Celldex got its hands on 11 different antibody drugs in various stages of development, some skilled drug developers, and more than $50 million in cash when it acquired Curagen last May. Investors initially cheered, but soon soured on the deal because it didn’t satisfy their short-term outlook, Marucci says.

Yet one of those assets from Curagen, an antibody that’s “empowered” by being linked to a potent toxin, showed some intriguing clinical trial results in December that may have long-term potential. The drug, now called CDX-011, was found to keep metastatic breast cancer from spreading further in 9 out of 26 patients for at least 12 weeks. This result, reported at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, was somewhat overshadowed by another souped-up antibody drug from Roche and Waltham, MA-based ImmunoGen (NASDAQ: IMGN), but it was an important step for Celldex at a prominent medical meeting.

“We were very happy with the data,” Marucci says.

By expanding into Massachusetts in 2008, what Celldex got was a team of people who should know what to do next. Celldex isn’t going to be at the mercy of outsourcing firms who may or may not hit their deadlines. “The Avant infrastructure really gives us all the preclinical, clinical development, and toxicology capabilities we need. We can do that all in house now. The synergistic aspect was that we can now control the development process,” Marucci says.

Those people are being put to the test this year, on programs like CDX-011. During our conversation Marucci made sure to use the word “randomized” several times, to point out that Celldex is graduating from exploratory, uncontrolled trials to more rigorous studies that compare patients randomly assigned to take the experimental drug to those assigned to a control group. It’s a sign, Marucci says, of a company that’s growing up, not just expanding physically in different geographies.

“By the end of 2010, we should have multiple programs in randomized later-stage studies. We have an engine for future growth. We are an antibody company,” Marucci says.

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