Dendreon Goes on Hiring Binge After Prostate Cancer Drug Boosts Survival

5/6/09Follow @xconomy

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to hire medical science liaisons, people who are deeply familiar with the clinical trial data that the company will need to explain before urologists and oncologists will become comfortable enough with the product to start prescribing it next year.

“It always takes time for doctors to get their head around a new drug, and that’s something the company needs to start working on now,” Miller says.

I combed through the job descriptions to see if Dendreon is tipping its hand about any of its strategies, but the listings are mostly generic. Several of the jobs are for people with skills in manufacturing in Seattle, although it appears that they will just make small batches needed to make drugs for clinical trials, not the commercial-grade drug, which is made entirely in New Jersey. Miller said he’s hopeful the company will add a Seattle-area manufacturing facility, to provide some other source of production in case a major snowstorm or natural disaster were to interrupt shipments from the New Jersey factory.

The reason these questions take on extra weight with Dendreon is the same reason why the drug has generated so much attention already. Provenge is dramatically different from traditional chemotherapy, or even targeted antibody drugs that are supposed to seek out cancer cells and spare healthy ones. Instead, Provenge is designed to trigger the body’s natural immune defenses to recognize cancer cells as foreign invaders, like a virus, and kill them.

The way this works is that the Dendreon approach requires blood to be drawn from a patient, and some white blood cells vital to the immune system, called dendritic cells, to be separated in a lab. The cells are shipped to the company and incubated with a genetically engineered protein found on prostate cancer cells, called PAP. This process is supposed to “teach” the immune system to recognize cells with this marker as foreign and fight them, and is sort of like waving a red flag in front of a bull. These newly revved-up white blood cells are shipped back in cold storage from Dendreon’s New Jersey factory to the clinic, and re-infused into the patient, giving them new ability to fight off the cancer.

Obviously, logistics are imperative with such a product. Any disruptions in supply or lost packages, with a potentially life-saving product, would undoubtedly be met with roars of protest. Getting the right people and processes in place will be crucial.

The good news for Dendreon is that in a recession, it’s a good time to be hunting for high-caliber workers in the labor pool, says Karen Fenstermacher, president of Northwest Recruiting Professionals, a Seattle-based HR consulting firm that works with biotech companies. Many skilled people are unemployed and available to go to work fast, although the recession also means that top-notch workers who still have jobs at other companies may be reluctant to leave secure positions, she says.

There’s always a risk in hiring the wrong people, or putting them in the wrong place during an expansion push, but in this case Dendreon has had months—if not years—to prepare for this scenario of positive clinical trial data, Miller says. He’s not concerned that the company will suffer from growing pains.

“It’s really a great time for this to happen to Dendreon,” says Fenstermacher, who isn’t working to place people for the company. “I have a steady stream of people who are looking for opportunities out there.”

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