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Humanigen CEO optimistic on drug candidate after pulling company from the brink

The biotech is in the early stages of work on a drug designed to reduce the sometimes dangerous side effects of a cancer therapy involving altered T cells
Cameron Durrant
The company was in ‘pretty dire straits,' Dr Cameron Durrant says

Almost three and a half years ago, Cameron Durrant made one of those pivotal decisions that executives face perhaps once or twice in their careers.

Several colleagues had called him about taking the reins of Humanigen Inc (OTCMKTS:HGEN), a company that’s now getting into the clinic to reduce the sometimes fatal and dangerous side effects of CAR-T, a new approach to cancer therapy involving altered T cells.

But there were a few twists. The company had filed for bankruptcy, with slim prospects of getting out. It had been delisted from the Nasdaq, was facing multiple class-action lawsuits, and its drug pipeline was in disarray. The little money the company had would probably be spent on the bankruptcy and legal actions. The board had imploded.

READ: Humanigen study of its monoclonal antibody in CAR-T therapy featured in medical journal

“The company was in pretty dire straits,” Durrant told Proactive Investors.

Durrant consulted with family and industry colleagues and joined the board in January 2016, effectively working as the CEO, a role he officially took in March 2016.

An enticement, according to Durrant, was the Burlingame, California, company’s stable of drug candidates.

Prior work for the turnaround specialist includes serving as CEO at three specialty pharma companies and in senior executive roles at Pharmacia Corp, now part of Pfizer Inc (NYSE:PFE), as well as Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ).

Humanigen emerged from bankruptcy in June 2016, but it had another setback when it was beaten to approval by a competitor that won Food and Drug Administration approval in August 2017 for benznidazole, a treatment of Chagas disease, a tropical, parasitic illness.

Focus on lenzilumab

Since then, the company has concentrated on its main drug candidate, lenzilumab. It’s a recombinant monoclonal antibody designed to treat side effects associated with CAR-T therapies used in the treatment of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and adults with advanced lymphomas. The side effects include fever, heartbeat irregularities, low blood pressure, organ failure, seizures, coma, brain swelling and sometimes death.

Lenzilumab, according to Humanigen, shows promise in neutralizing a substance that was previously thought to promote growth of white blood cells but is actually tied to inflammatory processes that can occur during CAR-T therapies and lead to the side effects. Pre-clinical work has shown lenzilumab is effective in preventing the side effects and may make the CAR-T therapies more effective, according to the company.

Durrant is optimistic about the company’s prospects as he steps up fundraising and hunts for partnerships and deals.

“We have additional investors who are willing to pony up,” he said, “As well as considerable proactive outreach from potential pharms partners and leading key opinion leaders and clinicians in the field. We think we can make some great things happen.”

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