Dendreon May Not Survive Its Success: Q&A with Founder Chris Henney, Part 1
Christopher Henney’s career in biotechnology looks like a three-act drama over three decades. He’s a classically-trained immunologist who went on to be the co-founder of Seattle’s three most successful biotech companies when ranked by stock market value—Immunex, Icos, and Dendreon.
Henney, now 68, pushed Dendreon on its odyssey when he joined as CEO in 1995. He developed its technology, drove it into late-stage clinical trials, took it public, and then handed over the company to his young protégé Mitchell Gold at the beginning of 2003. Henney left the company as chairman of the board a year later. He doesn’t make a whole lot of public appearances around town anymore, although he still lives in Seattle and serves on the boards of five different biotech companies around the world.
I caught up with Henney at the Starbucks in the Madison Park neighborhood, mainly to find out what he had to say about Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN). The company has become one of biotech’s biggest success stories of the year, since April, when it said a 500-patient clinical trial of its first-of-a-kind treatment for prostate cancer, sipuleucel-T (Provenge), was able to extend lives of men with terminal prostate cancer by a median of about four months, with minimal side effects like fever and chills.
Henney provided some interesting added history to the Dendreon saga. The company had actually started in 1992, and spun out of Stanford University under the name Activated Cell Therapy. It had a technique for sifting out a powerful type of white blood cell known as a dendritic cell from a blood sample, but didn’t really have a business model other than selling some commodity parts, Henney says. He recruited chief scientific officer David Urdal, then at Immunex, to join him on a mission to build what became Dendreon—a company that separates out the dendritic cells from a patient’s blood sample, and incubates them in such a way as to “teach” the immune system to fight cancer cells like a virus. If the FDA clears this treatment for sale early next year, as analysts generally consider a fait acompli, then this will be the first drug ever made commercially available in the U.S. to actively stimulate the immune system to fight any form of cancer.
If that happens, it would be a coup for prostate cancer patients, and a vindication for a long-snakebit field of science. Even though Gold has said he hopes to build an anchor company for Seattle, like Biogen and Genzyme are for Boston, Henney says he doesn’t necessarily see that happening. Here are edited highlights of the conversation, which we’re running today and tomorrow:
Xconomy: Do you stay in touch with (CEO) Mitch Gold, and the Board?
Chris Henney: Absolutely. Not so much with the board, but with individual members of the board. At social levels. Mitch and I are very cordial.
X: Does he seek your advice from time to time?
CH: I wouldn’t say that, and I don’t proffer it. We talk … Next Page »