NanoString Nabs Ex-Seattle Genetics Exec to Lead Diagnostic Push

Seattle-based NanoString Technologies sees itself growing from a research tool company into a more diversified player with diagnostic tests that enable more personalized cancer medicine. Now it has hired its first sales and marketing leader to take the fruit of NanoString R&D, and turn it into this potentially large new line of business.

Bruce Seeley, the former executive vice president of commercial operations at Seattle Genetics (NASDAQ: SGEN), has joined NanoString as its new senior vice president and general manager of diagnostics. Seeley’s mandate is to figure out the detailed commercial strategy, and hire key sales lieutenants, who will sell NanoString’s nCounter machine as a diagnostic platform for assessing whether a patient has breast cancer that will relapse.

NanoString, which raised $20 million last November from an investment group that included GE and former Genzyme CEO Henri Termeer, is betting much of its future on its ability to build a big diagnostics business. The company has already had some success, building a team of 100 employees, who research, develop, and sell nCounter machines for top genetic research centers like the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, MA. But that market has its limits, especially in an era when federal research budgets are tight, so NanoString’s challenge will be to generate excitement among a whole new set of customers—oncologists who treat patients.

Bruce Seeley

While Seeley, 48, has spent his career marketing targeted cancer drugs like Genentech’s trastuzumab (Herceptin) and Seattle Genetics’ brentuximab vedotin (Adcetris), he has no prior experience in the diagnostics business. That’s OK, NanoString CEO Brad Gray says, because nobody has really created a model yet like NanoString aspires to for diagnostics, and Seeley’s experience is as relevant as anybody’s for the task.

Specifically, NanoString needs to show doctors that it has a powerful new tool for assessing whether a woman with breast cancer is likely to relapse, by analyzing a proprietary 50-gene signature known as PAM50.

“We need to primarily educate the oncologists on how they can improve their practice based on the information we provide,” Gray says. “So we went to a commercial leader with a long history of educating oncologists to improve therapy. That’s traditionally been done best in the oncology therapeutic area, rather than in oncology diagnostics. Bruce has a tremendous history working on innovative and high value therapeutic products, and that translates perfectly into what we want to do with PAM50.”

Seattle Genetics has clearly had a big success in the early days of marketing its first cancer drug, but Seeley left the company in the drug’s early days, just six months after it won FDA approval. “My experience at SeaGen was spectacular. It’s a great company and a phenomenal product. It was a great opportunity. And after launch was successfully off the ground, I thought about what’s next,” Seeley says.

Seeley said he met with Gray to discuss the NanoString commercial position after he left Seattle Genetics in February.

“The technology at Nanostring is where the future of cancer therapy is going—more personalized cancer therapy,” Seeley says. “I saw NanoString as a way to leverage my experience on cutting-edge innovative targeted therapies, and add on some new experience with innovative diagnostics. The common theme on the therapeutic side and the diagnostic side is with helping patients. What sealed the deal for me is that inside NanoString, everybody I spoke with has a very strong passion for patients. They understand what PAM50 means for patients.”

Seeley will have some time to figure out NanoString’s game plan with PAM50. The company presented detailed results from its first significant clinical trial last December at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. What was important there to know is that NanoString’s test was able to classify women as clearly being at “high,” “low,” or “intermediate” risk of having a breast cancer relapse. Women can already get that kind of information from Genomic Health’s 21-gene test, although researchers said the NanoString test was able to put fewer women in that gray zone of “intermediate” where it’s less obvious whether or not to get aggressive with preventive rounds of chemotherapy.

While Gray described achieving the trial as one of the most important events in NanoString history, the nCounter still has a long way to go as a product. NanoString is looking to confirm that result with another clinical trial that just got underway. The new study, like the previous one, will ask whether NanoString’s machine can process 15-year old tumor samples and accurately predict, based on their PAM50 genetic profiles, what kind of medical outcome those women ended up with. NanoString is able to run this test on samples from the Austrian Breast & Colorectal Cancer Study Group 8, because the samples were preserved, the study was initiated in 1996, and women who enrolled have been tracked over the long term.

NanoString CEO Brad Gray

Gray isn’t saying when NanoString hopes to wrap up that study, but because it doesn’t require new women to enroll, the company won’t be held up by trial recruitment delays, which often pose an obstacle to drug developers. The results, when they arrive, will clearly be a key part of the marketing message that Seeley hopes to develop and aim at oncologists.

Redwood City,CA-based Genomic Health (NASDAQ: GHDX) has been a trailblazer in developing high-value, high-cost predictive diagnostic tests, and in establishing a business model where doctors send in their samples to a central lab for analysis. The company generated $206 million in revenues last year this way. NanoString plans to pursue a different business model, by selling the instrument to the oncologist, and also selling the proprietary chemical reagents to run each test themselves.

Getting doctors excited about the medical information NanoString provides will be one of the key challenges, and so will creating a pricing strategy that works for insurers. Seeley will have to do some homework on the competitive landscape, Gray says. And once the product gets regulatory clearance, he’s going to have to hire some top sales talent to make the case for a new and unfamiliar type of diagnostic.

“Bruce will have a lot of work to do when he arrives,” Gray says. “We want to deliver this product to patients wherever we can as quickly as we can. And we’ll do it without taking any shortcuts.”

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