David Urdal, the scientific entrepreneur who co-founded the modern version of Dendreon over 15 years ago and helped turn it into a pioneer of cancer immunotherapy, is stepping down from his job as chief scientific officer at the Seattle biotech company (NASDAQ: DNDN).
Urdal, 61, will be retiring as Dendreon’s executive vice president and chief scientist at the end of 2011, according to a regulatory filing disclosed today with the Securities & Exchange Commission. He will officially hand over his duties to Mark Frohlich, the chief medical officer, on December 31, according to the filing.
Dendreon didn’t issue a press release today to announce the departure of Urdal, but it did disseminate the news in-house. Here’s what Urdal had to say to his colleagues via e-mail:
“Anyone who has talked to me for more than two minutes knows that I have become bewitched, bewildered and bedazzled with the arrival of our first grandchild last April. The same month that the FDA brought us into a new era of cancer treatment with the approval of Provenge, my daughter brought the Urdal family into the next generation with the birth of my granddaughter – Ava. I look forward to seeing the world through her eyes and the eyes of the grandson we expect to see in June.”
“I am now in my sixteenth year with Dendreon and what an extraordinary journey it has been – the first autologous cellular immunotherapy approved by the FDA! What an achievement and what a pleasure it is to be a member of such a truly extraordinary team – the Dendreon team – as we won the high achievement of Provenge approval. We are just getting started.”
Dendreon CEO Mitch Gold, in his note to employees, said: “Dave has been an inspiration to so many of us, myself included. Over his many dedicated years, he has provided thoughtful leadership, helping to guide us from inception through the FDA approval of the world’s first autologous cellular immunotherapy. He truly embodies everything Dendreon is known for: relentless determination, perseverance and a passionate and compassionate commitment to improving the lives of patients with cancer, and we are endlessly thankful for his dedication.”
It was back in the summer of 1995, Urdal, a biochemist by training, left Seattle-based Immunex to join with Christopher Henney to re-invent a tiny Stanford University spinoff called Activated Cell Therapy. The two executives put together a new business plan based on the company’s technology for stimulating dendritic cells of the immune system. The idea was to essentially “teach” the dendritic cells to recognize hallmarks of cancer as if they were a virus, and trigger other cells of the body’s immune system to attack against tumors. They re-named the company Dendreon, raised venture capital together, moved the operation to Seattle in 1999, and took the company public in 2000.
Long after Henney left the company as CEO at the end of 2002, Urdal was still there, as the soft-spoken, emotional ballast of sorts for Dendreon during its extraordinary ups and downs. The company was worth less than $2 a share at one point in the summer of 2002 during a biotech industry meltdown, amid widespread skepticism that it would ever generate convincing data to support its hypothesis.
But Urdal stuck around long enough to see Dendreon make cancer immunotherapy work, even as many other competitors went down in flames. Dendreon looked like it had broken through in March 2007, when an FDA advisory panel said its drug had shown substantial evidence of safety and effectiveness, but that hope was dashed two months later when the FDA rejected the application, asking for more evidence.
By April 2009, Dendreon finally delivered on its vision, showing for the first time in a large pivotal trial of more than 500 patients that this cancer-immunotherapy system could help prolong the lives of men with terminal prostate cancer, with minimal side effects. The company’s stock rocketed, the company won FDA approval for its drug, sipuleucel-T (Provenge) a year later, and it is now embarking on an extraordinary commercial boom.
The company, which now employs about 1,500 people around the country, is now worth almost $5 billion, and has a drug that could generate more than $4 billion in annual worldwide sales at its peak, according to JP Morgan analyst Cory Kasimov.
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