To Infinity and Beyond: Julian Adams on Missteps and His New Job

Xconomy Boston — 

Julian Adams left Boston pharma Millennium Pharmaceuticals in 2003 having accomplished a rare feat. A medicinal chemist by training, Adams helped shepherd along a drug known as bortezomib (Velcade) that was the first-ever approved inhibitor of the proteasome, the cell’s garbage disposal unit. It was an approach most people thought would never work.

“Everybody was convinced, except for Julian Adams, that if you block this target people would melt away and die,” Alnylam Pharmaceuticals CEO John Maraganore, a former Millennium executive, told Xconomy a few years ago. “Except for Julian, who stuck with it.”

Adams was indeed proven right. Bortezomib is now a widely used treatment for people with the aggressive, deadly blood cancer multiple myeloma, and the main reason Takeda bought Millennium for $8.8 billion in 2008. The drug’s widely told story, from the labs of Harvard University to a tiny startup, ProScript, and eventually Millennium, became a shining example of fast drug development—eight years from discovery to approval, and a speedy four-month FDA review.

A number of folks who had a hand in bortezomib’s success at Millennium—Maraganore, Mark Levin (Third Rock Ventures), David Schenkein (Genentech, Agios Pharmaceuticals), Nick Leschly (Bluebird Bio), Alan Crane (Polaris Partners) among them—went on to lead other companies or take up other prolific positions in biotech. Adams was no different. In 2001, he had a beer with his longtime friend and ex-Millennium colleague Steve Holtzman, who had formed a startup, Infinity Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: INFI). Adams was drawn in by Holtzman’s pitch. Why not build, from scratch, a research and development organization “in his image,” Adams recalls?

Adams dove in. He was named Infinity’s head of R&D in 2003, and over the next 13-plus years, tried to execute on that vision—to form a collaborative early stage research and clinical development team, rather than two disparate groups—and build off his success at Millennium. What he encountered instead was a humbling roller coaster. (More on that and his latest job, in the Q&A below.)

Infinity’s plan to develop small molecule drugs for cancer never quite panned out. Two drugs that seemed promising early on eventually failed clinical trials in pancreatic, lung, and stomach cancers. A third program, a blood cancer drug called duvelisib—not discovered by Infinity, but acquired through a licensing deal with San Diego, CA-based Intellikine in 2010—became its best prospect. It felt validated when pharma giant AbbVie (NYSE: ABBV) wrote a $275 million check in 2014 to bet on duvelisib’s future. Yet, AbbVie just months later paid $21 billion for Pharmacyclics and a drug, ibrutinib (Imbruvica), that competed directly with duvelisib.

“We were stunned that that happened,” Adams says.

The writing was on the wall. By the time duvelisib’s big test produced results in June 2016, the competition had blown by Infinity, and so-called PI3 kinase inhibitors, like Infinity’s drug, were no longer hot commodities. Even though duvelisib hit its main goal in a mid-stage trial, the results weren’t good enough to compete with drugs already on the market—the bar had gotten higher. The company closed its research and discovery work, and lost the AbbVie partnership. Two months later, it sold duvelisib to another biotech, Verastem (NASDAQ: VSTM), for a pittance—nothing up front, and up to $28 million in future payments.

Adams left in January, and Infinity now operates with a “skeleton” staff of about 20 to 30 people working on the company’s final shot—a drug called IPI-549 in Phase 1 testing, Adams says. Shares currently trade at roughly $3 apiece.

Adams has his share of regrets about his time at Infinity—it grew too fast, he says, and he blames himself for plenty of mistakes, even as “mundane” as making a key hire that didn’t work out, or not vetting certain clinical trial sites well enough. But failure is the norm in drug development, not the exception. The Infinity setback hasn’t consumed him.

“I’m undaunted, I still want to do this,” he says. ”Managing failure is part of being a scientist.”

For now, that means … Next Page »

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