Dendreon Goes on Hiring Binge After Prostate Cancer Drug Boosts Survival

5/6/09Follow @xconomy

Dendreon partied at a medical meeting last week in Chicago after it showed that its immune-stimulating therapy could extend the lives of prostate cancer patients with minimal side effects. Now the biotech company is fast at work again, looking to hire 60 new people to make sure it performs all the work necessary to turn its drug into a blockbuster.

The Seattle-based company (NASDAQ: DNDN) has posted almost all of these new positions on its website in the past week. It is looking to fill 37 spots at headquarters, another 22 at its commercial manufacturing plant in Morris Plains, NJ, and one person in Research Triangle Park, NC, where it has an important relationship with a supplier. Dendreon had just 198 total employees at last count on March 2, so this represents a 30 percent expansion.

The job descriptions posted online represent a broad range of skills Dendreon will need to maximize the value of sipuleucel-T (Provenge). Dendreon is looking for people in quality assurance and quality control, finance, marketing, human resources, and logistics. These people, together with the current Dendreon staff, will be charged with amending an application to the FDA to start marketing the drug in the U.S., and then producing enough of the drug to meet demand. Prostate cancer kills 30,000 men nationwide each year, and analysts predict the product—the first drug of its kind likely to win FDA approval—will go on to exceed $1 billion a year in sales.

Dendreon has been mum about the commercial game plan it needs to execute to make this really happen, deferring all questions about strategy to an analyst day it plans to host this summer. But it confirmed the massive push is on to hire and grow.

“Dendreon is beginning hiring to support the regulatory and commercial plans for Provenge,” said Katherine Stueland, a spokeswoman for the company.

Hiring well, and fast, ought to be among the top priorities at the company, says David Miller, CEO of Biotech Stock Research. Right off the bat, the company has holes to fill in its executive ranks. It needs a sales and marketing executive, following the departure last year of James Caggiano, who had been hired in 2004 from Abbott Laboratories to lead marketing of Provenge.

Dendreon’s chief scientific officer, David Urdal, has experience in manufacturing biotech drugs and can handle this critical task, Miller says, so there’s no need to bring in an outsider. Yet with Urdal busy with that job, the company needs to designate someone else to spearhead development of the company’s other experimental immune-boosting drugs with potential to advance through clinical trials, Miller says. The company also doesn’t have a senior executive responsible for business development, although that’s what CEO Mitchell Gold used to do before he climbed the ranks to the top. Gold will personally lead partnership talks with any large companies that want a piece of the drug in Europe or other parts of the world, Miller says.

At lower ranks, the company will need the quality assurance and quality control people to get up to speed now—not a year from now when orders could be pouring in—because Provenge is an unusual product that requires different training to manufacture than other biotech drugs, Miller says. While that’s happening, the company must move quickly 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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