Former Keryx Exec’s Mission: Turn TG Into the Next Pharmacyclics

5/6/13Follow @benthefidler

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Access Oncology, a company making cancer drugs that Weiss founded prior to joining Keryx. One of those drugs was perifosine, a colon cancer treatment that Access Oncology licensed from Zentaris (now known as Aeterna Zentaris) in 2002.

Weiss, however, didn’t bet the company on cancer drugs. Keryx also had a foot in the door in kidney ailments with sulodexide, which treats kidney damage that results from diabetes. Weiss wanted to leverage that drug with something complementary, hoping to one day selling the two in tandem.

Keryx found that opportunity in Taiwan from a company called Panion & BF Biotech, from which it licensed the rights to ferric citrate, a ferric iron-based compound taken orally that could be used to lower phosphate levels for kidney disease patients on dialysis, in 2005. The pull was obvious: Keryx could stack drugs combating kidney disorders while adding something far less risky than anything it had in development. Phosphate binders, after all, were already a proven commodity, as shown by Genzyme’s sevelamer hydrochloride (Renagel) and Shire’s lanthanum carbonate (Fosrenol).

“From the moment we licensed the drug, we knew that it worked,” he says. “Iron binds to phosphorus. You can do it in a test tube, you could do it in a water treatment plant, or you could do it in your gut.”

The deal was an immediate steal for Weiss: Keryx obtained the rights for “several hundred thousand dollars” and roughly a year later Keryx sold just the Japanese commercial rights to the drug to Japan Tabacco and Torii Pharmaceutical for $20 million upfront and another $80 million in milestones, he says. But it was also very fortunate. Sulodexide crashed and burned after flunking a late-stage clinical trial in 2008, and Weiss was out the following year, replaced by interim CEO Michael Tarnok and later Bentsur.

For his part, Weiss claims to be the victim of his own success, in that when he took over Keryx, his goal was to work on multiple companies at one time.

“We started with no market cap and no one cared about the company so I could do whatever I wanted, and when we were a billion dollar market cap, the big large institutions wanted to make sure I was spending my time exclusively on Keryx,” he says.

So Weiss says he focused on getting ferric citrate and perifosine into late-stage trials, but didn’t want to stick around for the next three years to wait for the studies to bear fruit.

“I wanted to build new businesses,” he says. “It was the perfect time for me to exit, [and] it was the perfect opportunity to bring Ron Bentsur back into the company as CEO. So all the stars aligned perfectly for me to exit at a time when no one would care. “

Still, Weiss’ fingerprints are on the current-day Keryx. While perifosine flopped, Keryx’s entire future now rests on ferric citrate, which hit all of its goals in a late-stage clinical trial in January and could win FDA approval later this year.

Weiss, in the meantime, moved onto his next ventures. After setting up a hedge fund, New York-based Opus Point Partners, Weiss stumbled onto a French company called LFB Biotechnologies, which was looking to spin out some of its assets into a new company. In examining LFB’s assets, Weiss found an antibody targeting CD20—a cellular target found on the surface of B-cells—called ublituximab. Much like with phosphate binders, the drug was designed to go down a well-trodden path: Roche/Genentech’s blockbuster cancer drug rituximab (Rituxan) works the same way.

But Weiss was intrigued when he was shown … Next Page »

Ben Fidler is Xconomy's Deputy Biotechnology Editor. You can e-mail him at bfidler@xconomy.com Follow @benthefidler

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