Dendreon May Not Survive Its Success: Q&A with Founder Chris Henney, Part 1

Xconomy Seattle — 

Christopher Henney’s career in biotechnology looks like a three-act drama over three decades. He’s a classically-trained immunologist who went on to be the co-founder of Seattle’s three most successful biotech companies when ranked by stock market value—Immunex, Icos, and Dendreon.

Henney, now 68, pushed Dendreon on its odyssey when he joined as CEO in 1995. He developed its technology, drove it into late-stage clinical trials, took it public, and then handed over the company to his young protégé Mitchell Gold at the beginning of 2003. Henney left the company as chairman of the board a year later. He doesn’t make a whole lot of public appearances around town anymore, although he still lives in Seattle and serves on the boards of five different biotech companies around the world.

I caught up with Henney at the Starbucks in the Madison Park neighborhood, mainly to find out what he had to say about Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN). The company has become one of biotech’s biggest success stories of the year, since April, when it said a 500-patient clinical trial of its first-of-a-kind treatment for prostate cancer, sipuleucel-T (Provenge), was able to extend lives of men with terminal prostate cancer by a median of about four months, with minimal side effects like fever and chills.

Henney provided some interesting added history to the Dendreon saga. The company had actually started in 1992, and spun out of Stanford University under the name Activated Cell Therapy. It had a technique for sifting out a powerful type of white blood cell known as a dendritic cell from a blood sample, but didn’t really have a business model other than selling some commodity parts, Henney says. He recruited chief scientific officer David Urdal, then at Immunex, to join him on a mission to build what became Dendreon—a company that separates out the dendritic cells from a patient’s blood sample, and incubates them in such a way as to “teach” the immune system to fight cancer cells like a virus. If the FDA clears this treatment for sale early next year, as analysts generally consider a fait acompli, then this will be the first drug ever made commercially available in the U.S. to actively stimulate the immune system to fight any form of cancer.

If that happens, it would be a coup for prostate cancer patients, and a vindication for a long-snakebit field of science. Even though Gold has said he hopes to build an anchor company for Seattle, like Biogen and Genzyme are for Boston, Henney says he doesn’t necessarily see that happening. Here are edited highlights of the conversation, which we’re running today and tomorrow:

Xconomy: Do you stay in touch with (CEO) Mitch Gold, and the Board?

Chris Henney: Absolutely. Not so much with the board, but with individual members of the board. At social levels. Mitch and I are very cordial.

X: Does he seek your advice from time to time?

CH: I wouldn’t say that, and I don’t proffer it. We talk … Next Page »

Single PageCurrently on Page: 1 2 3 4

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.

7 responses to “Dendreon May Not Survive Its Success: Q&A with Founder Chris Henney, Part 1”

  1. ABHORNS says:

    I am very concerned that the alleged corruption surrounding DNDN is very real. “Deep Capture” has presented the facts beautifully and one must take their facts seriously. In sum, I believe Dendreon was indeed railroaded 2 years ago when they did not get FDA approval. Corruption and conflict of interests both at the FDA and other places played an important role in an attempt to kill Dendreon. Yet, as of today, still nothing has been done by the authorities to expose and or punish these criminals. Say what you wish. But, 600+ men have died because of greedy, heartless, money hungry corrupted individuals who obviously do not care about anyones life except theirs.

  2. Warlord_2010 says:

    “There were a small minority who wanted more data, but that’s pretty common.” He is being kind! What he should have said is that there was a small minority that was so conflicted they never should have voted, much less been seated on the Advisory Committee! Read to see not only how corrupted was the FDA review of Provenge, but how ten hedge funds colluded in a failed attempt to destroy Dendreon. That people provided evidence of this to the SEC and to the HHS IG more than 2 years ago, and that nothing was done, speaks volumes about how ineffective these two agencies are in rooting out corruption…assuming that they even have the least bit of understanding what is going on under their noses. Both the SEC and HHS need a good housecleaning, beginning at the highest. The fact is, nothing has changed in these two agencies…they continue on, business as usual, as they have for the last 9 years. And meanwhile, between May 8, 2007, when the FDA asked for more data, and now, 65,000 men have died of prostate cancer. Many could have been helped by Provenge. And the data the FDA wanted? Well, as seen in the article, it was released on April 28, 2009, and it showed what the FDA knew on March 29, 2007: the drug is safe and effective. Our FDA: what a poor excuse for an agency charged with protecting the health of the American Public. As Joseph Stalin once said: One man’s death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” Or was it our FDA?

  3. Steven says:

    Luke, I am now getting confimation from Chris Henney what I was hearing from David Miller at the Investor Village get together the night before the Dendreon shareholder meeting this year.

    I would prefer to see Dendreon remain independant but these days it is tough. Also big pharma wants to see that a little biotech can not only succeed in phase three but also get the product through the FDA and then be able to produce the product in quanity and finally be able to sell and get reimbursed for it.

    Yes…too complicated. But if Dendreon can do all these things, they will be acquired or have to fight like hell to stay independant.

    Luke, again, thanks for just the facts. So many other media sources just can’t do that.


  4. Steven, that’s an interesting point you raise. It sounds like you’re saying that Big Pharma wants to see more risk removed from the equation at Dendreon before it is willing to acquire the company. I’m curious what other readers think those essential steps are: FDA approval, manufacturing scale-up, Medicare reimbursement at the company’s desired price, early sales momentum, or more?

  5. Steven is not correct. Just look at the recent J&J acquisition of another prostate cancer company, Cougar Biotech (symbol was CGRB) for $894 million. Cougar has two Phase III trials in process with no results yet. About where DNDN was in early 2006.

  6. crash says:

    I asked my boss, you could have gotten that property a lot cheaper, why did you bid so high? he answered, I wanted it. I think Big Pharma with the deepest pockets think the same way. Do your DD and it points to only one high buck phama by far, but M. Gold ain`t sellin`. Get it?