Kaleetan Seeks to Stand on Dendreon’s Shoulders, With Immune Therapy for Cancer

Lots of biotech companies around the country are grasping for the title of “the next Dendreon,” including one fledgling startup here in Seattle, Kaleetan Pharmaceuticals.

Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN) has become one of the nation’s hottest biotech stories of the year, after it made history in April, winning the first FDA approval for a prostate cancer drug that actively stimulates the immune system to fight the cancer like a virus. This advance came after about a century of research fits and starts, loads of skepticism, 15 years of concentrated effort at one company, and hundreds of millions of dollars. After all that, it has paid off with a company now worth more than $5 billion, and a drug projected to exceed $1 billion in U.S. sales in a few years.

Important as the approval of sipuleucel-T (Provenge) has been for Dendreon’s employees, investors, and prostate cancer patients who might personally stand to benefit, there is still plenty of room left for improvement. That’s the founding idea of Kaleetan (pronounced cal-ee-TANN).

“Dendreon has led the way and shown the importance of dendritic cells in the fight against cancer,” says Kaleetan co-founder Grant Risdon. “You have to give them credit for sticking it out.” But the next logical step is to develop a genetically engineered protein drug that can stimulate the same immune activity, without all the complicated logistics Dendreon has developed over the years, Risdon says. “Ours is more of a classic biotech drug,” he adds.

The startup is long on scientific reputation, and light on capital, at least for the moment. The founders include Jeff Ledbetter and Martha Hayden-Ledbetter, the husband and wife scientific team that co-founded Seattle-based Trubion Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: TRBN), as well as Cassian Yee, one of the immunotherapy experts at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The operations in the early days are being headed up by CEO Alan Wahl, a veteran of Trubion and Seattle Genetics, and Grant Risdon, an immunologist-turned-business development guy. Risdon told me about the company’s plans a couple weeks back during a meeting in South Lake Union.

The idea was first described in these pages by my colleague Thea Chard when Risdon presented at the Technology Alliance’s Innovation Showcase event last month. Kaleetan’s idea is to develop a standardized injectable protein drug that works to “teach” dendritic cells to be a lot smarter. These cells are important, because their role is to recognize biological markers of invaders, and process signature bits, and present them to other immune cells that can attack them like a virus. The hope is to pull off this trick with a cheaper and logistically easier way than Dendreon’s method, which requires that blood be drawn from an individual patient, and that the dendritic cells be separated out, incubated with a protein marker found on cancer cells, and then re-infused into the patient a few days later.

What Kaleetan mainly has at the moment is some intellectual property for making genetically engineered fusion proteins. This is a platform it calls ADAPT, which is designed to … Next Page »

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