When Blend Therapeutics reshaped itself and raised cash earlier this year, it hinted some of those dollars would help bring on a full-time top executive. The Watertown, MA, startup is checking that box today, naming Drew Fromkin its president and CEO.
Fromkin was the leader of Clinical Data of Newton, MA, which he helped revamp and steer towards a $1.2 billion buyout from Forest Laboratories in 2011. He also had a quick stint at another Boston-area company, Radius Health (NASDAQ: RDUS), at the end of 2013.
Fromkin says he took time off after the Clinical Data sale and a short tenure at Forest. He’d been working more than two decades at various pharma and biotech jobs, traveling around on business, and the sale gave him the chance to spend time with his family. His two oldest kids were in or approaching high school, getting ready for college. “You don’t get those years back,” he says.
As time went on, Fromkin began dipping back into biotech via consulting gigs, and then surveying “hundreds” of companies to find the right fit. That eventually led to Blend, a startup making the transition to its first clinical tests.
Blend’s two lead drug candidates, known as BTP-114 and BTP-277, should begin their first trials over the summer and next year, respectively, according to Fromkin.
Those two drugs are vastly different and emblematic of the strategic shift Blend has undergone. When Blend started up in 2012 based on the work of local scientists Omid Farokhzad, Stephen Lippard, and Bob Langer, it had a two-pronged strategy: develop next-generation, more targeted versions of platinum-based chemotherapy drugs such as cisplatin; and blend disparate therapies together using nanoparticle technology.
BTP-114 is a product of its early work, a “prodrug” version of cisplatin that starts as an inactive substance, binds to a common protein, albumin, in the bloodstream, and then converts to a drug when the albumin is taken up by cancer cells. But as Farokhzad told Xconomy recently, the company went into stealth mode and shifted strategy: use the company’s “blend” technology to develop what it calls “Pentarins.” Farokhzad described them as better, tinier versions of antibody-drug conjugates, or ADCs—cancer treatments that link a guiding antibody and a chemical toxin to attack tumors like a smart bomb.
Blend aims to prove that the small size and nanoparticle coating allows Pentarins to more easily penetrate into tumor tissue. One ADC, Genentech and ImmunoGen’s ado-trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla), is approved for a solid tumor, breast cancer. But Blend contends that ADCs have a hard time penetrating solid organs or solid tumors, limiting their usefulness. Pentarins use peptide ligands, much smaller than antibodies, and fit inside a polymer nanoparticle that shepherds the drug through the body to its target cell.
Blend hasn’t said yet which diseases it will target with its Pentarins and BTP-114. The first human tests, starting this year, should point to where the drugs most effective and attract potential pharma partners that might be interested in using Blend technology to soup up their own drugs. This approach—showcase first, partner later—has led another nanoparticle drug company, Bind Therapeutics (NASDAQ: BIND), to deals with Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Roche, Amgen, and Merck.
Fromkin says in the short term, Blend aims to expand beyond 20 workers and add more backers to its venture syndicate, which already includes Flagship Ventures, NanoDimension, New Enterprise Associates, and Eminent Venture Capital. With trials looming, the bills are about to go up for Blend.
“Our current investors are fully aware of that and highly supportive,” Fromkin says.