Veterans of J&J, Pfizer, and Medimmune Seek to Transform Arno into Oncology Powerhouse

7/19/11Follow @arleneweintraub

The employees at Arno Therapeutics in Parsippany, NJ, have so much empty floor space in their square-shaped office suite that they could set up a volleyball net there and have a daily game. Well, sort of. Arno is one of many emerging “virtual” biotechs, so it outsources much of the clinical development work on its cancer drugs, and employs only six full-timers—not quite enough for a full-fledged volleyball match. In fact, the extra space is so bothersome to the company’s new CEO, Glenn Mattes, that he’s planning to move the company to smaller digs.

Arno’s business model revolves around a few highly trained decision makers, who are tasked with pinpointing the best path to approval for each of the company’s drugs—and determining the most qualified outside vendors to move those projects forward. That team includes Mattes, a Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) retiree who is best known for launching that company’s first two HIV/AIDS treatments, and chief operating officer Chris Houchins, who oversaw eight cancer compounds as director of oncology clinical operations for Pfizer (NYSE: PFE). And in late June, Arno named a new chief medical officer: Alexander Zukiwski, whose experience includes working for Medimmune and the J&J units Centocor and Ortho Biotech.

Mattes points out that everyone on Arno’s staff brought Rolodexes filled with contacts at contract research organizations and other outsourcing allies. “You can run a really efficient model by managing those partnerships well,” Mattes says. “Between Chris and Alex and me, we know what works. We know where we want to do the trials, who we should partner with to get the trials done, how much we want to pay for them, and how much work we need to be doing here to get all the way through Phase 3 if we need to.”

Arno’s tiny staff is juggling those decisions for not one, but three drug candidates, all of which are in the early stages of human testing. The company was formed around a molecule from the University of Pittsburgh, which was licensed in 2006 by Two River, a New York-based venture capital and merchant banking company. The drug, called AR-67, inhibits topoisomerase 1, an enzyme that has been implicated in several cancer types. Arno is investigating its use in a type of brain tumor called glioblastoma multiforme and in the blood cancer myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS).

In 2008, Arno licensed two additional molecules from a university that’s better known for its sports teams than it is for its biotech discoveries: Ohio State. One, called Ar-12, seems to induce cell death in solid tumors and lymphoma. The other, AR-42, is known as a pan-DAC—it inhibits … Next Page »

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