Light Sciences Oncology CEO Exits for New Job; Company Still Waiting for Pivotal Results

11/22/10Follow @xconomy

The CEO of Light Sciences Oncology, the Bellevue, WA-based company developing a first-of-its-kind drug/device combo therapy for cancer, has left to take a new job running another biotech firm, Xconomy has learned.

Llew Keltner’s name has been taken down from Light Sciences Oncology’s website, and Keltner personally confirmed the move in a phone call Friday afternoon. Neither Keltner—who I profiled in these pages in July 2008—nor the company’s chief financial officer, Bob Littauer, would give a reason for the departure. Keltner, who became CEO in September 2005, did say he left last month, and he plans to announce soon that he has joined another company. No interim CEO at Light Sciences has been named, and Littauer had no comment about whether it is seeking a replacement.

The timing of the CEO departure is curious, given the kind of critical inflection point the company is facing this year. The last time I wrote about Light Sciences, in March, Keltner predicted that the company would have clarity about its future sometime in the summer, when it expected to get results from a couple of pivotal cancer studies that enrolled 208 and 450 patients, respectively, with a couple different forms of liver cancer. Now it’s November, and Light Sciences still hasn’t reported on whether its goals of helping patients live longer, or keeping tumors from spreading for a longer period of time, have been met. Littauer did say in a couple of follow-up e-mails that it’s still too early for the company to do the necessary statistical comparisons between patients on its treatment and those in the control group.

As a private company, Light Sciences isn’t obligated to make public statements about material news like the results of a Phase III clinical trials. But back when I interviewed Keltner in February, he promised that Light Sciences would find out if it has really nailed it or not.

“The proof for us will be in the pudding this year,” he said in the earlier story.

Llew Keltner

Llew Keltner

Light Sciences has been around a long time, founded in 1995, and has raised a lot of money—about $137 million at last count. As I described back in an in-depth feature in March, it aspires to treat cancer in a way unlike any therapy currently on the U.S. market. The company is developing a drug/device combination therapy against solid tumors that aren’t treated well with conventional drugs that circulate through the body. The Light Sciences therapy is made to work by inserting a disposable catheter into a solid tumor, mounted with a light-emitting diode on the tip, and turning on the light. The patient is then injected with an inactive chemical drug called talaporfin sodium (Aptocine) that’s activated by the specific wavelength of light emitted by the LED to kill tumors around the light. It’s supposed to fight cancer without damaging the healthy tissue nearby.

The company was propped up through most of its history through the largesse of one wealthy shareholder, Craig Watjen, who made his fortune as treasurer in the early days at Microsoft. Watjen reportedly pumped $50 million of his own money into Light Sciences before he died of cancer back in August. Two months later, Light Sciences announced that Mitchell Hymowitz, the founder of CFO Services, was named to replace Watjen on the board.

Light Sciences has diversified its roster of investors in recent years. Essex Woodlands Health Ventures, Johnson & Johnson Development Corporation, and Novo A/S are backing the company. Light Sciences Oncology flirted with the idea of an IPO before withdrawing its prospectus four years ago, citing poor market conditions. The former director of the National Cancer Institute, Vincent DeVita, chairs the company’s scientific advisory board.

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