Biotech has come a long way in the past six or seven years. Technology has improved, risks for investing have lessened, and old-fashioned business savvy has carried biotech companies through what might have been the worst few years they’ve had to endure.
Now that biotech has survived the recession — 2014 was a banner year for biotech funding, in fact — Abe Abuchowski, CEO and chief science officer at Prolong Pharmaceuticals in South Plainfield, doesn’t see much reason for things to slow down. As Abuchowski sees it, biotech is in a good groove. And as long as it doesn’t oversaturate itself, the industry should stay there.
Abuchowski will receive the Sol J. Barer Award for Vision, Innovation, and Leadership for his work in PEGylation at the 2015 BioNJ annual dinner meeting and innovation celebration on Thursday, February 5, from 4:30 to 10 p.m., at the East Brunswick Hilton. The dinner will feature Barer himself, along with Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno; keynote speaker Don Wright (a cancer survivor also known as Marathon Man); Francois Nader, president and CEO of NPS Pharma; and Debbie Hart, president and CEO of BioNJ. Cost: $495. Visit www.BioNJ.org.
You may wonder what PEGylation is and what Abuchowski’s role in it is. PEGylation is a process in which polyethylene glycol (PEG) attaches to a protein molecule so that it does not pass through the kidneys and get removed from the body. This process has astounding implications for blood health and recovery, as it allows drugs to stay in the system longer and demand fewer doses. It also makes drugs cheaper to make — they require less of the raw protein material — and allows companies to hold onto patents when newer incarnations of a drug come along.
As for Abuchowski’s place in all this: he is considered the father of PEGylation, something the 66-year-old has worked on for a long time. Abuchowski grew up in Vineland, where his parents owned a chicken farm until large-scale mechanized chicken farms put small operations like his parents’ out of business in the 1960s. After the farm collapsed the Abuchowskis renovated and rented houses, creating a real estate firm that his sister, Sara, still runs. The young Abe worked alongside his father for years.
Abuchowski worked for McDonald’s through college, building his way up from cleaner to manager, and graduated from Rutgers in 1970. Between his parents’ lessons about hard work and integrity and his experience at McDonald’s, where he learned about management and quality control, Abuchowski built the skills that have served him so well in the corporate and entrepreneurial world.
College also put him on course to be the father of PEGylation. As a PhD student at Rutgers, Abuchowski was assigned to work on the process. He ended up finding what was holding things up and figured out how to attach bovine serum albumin.
Abuchowski and his PhD mentor, Frank Davis, founded Enzon in 1982, where they focused on two rare and largely overlooked diseases: “bubble boy syndrome” and acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children. Auchowski also started on a third product, PEG-Intron, an alpha-interferon therapy for hepatitis C, which finally got approved in 2001.
By that time Abuchowski had left Enzon, and the firm had moved away from PEGylation studies. Abuchowski founded Prolong in 2002, which today is broadly recognized for its contributions to treatment for anemias and cancers.
Abuchowski was also one of the founders of BioNJ, which in 1994 was called the Biotechnology Council of New Jersey. On his award for his career in PEGylation, Abuchowski says, “I’m tickled that I’m being recognized. I’m not sure I expected it.”
The business of research. By and large, the biotech industry as we know it is not even old enough to have a midlife crisis. Barely 25 years ago, in fact, biotech was so new that Enzon was one-fifth of the industry in New Jersey. Over the years Abuchowski has witnessed biotech grow on both sides of its name. Companies are developing ever more advanced biological drugs, but these advancements are propelled by technology.
“Most companies are driven by technology toward specific discoveries,” Abuchowski says. “People don’t say ‘I want to go into the arthritis field’ or ‘I want to go into the anemia field.’ Typically people find a particular technology or process and it leads them to a field.”
Where this becomes most important is in the funding. A lot of companies, he says, jump the gun trying to try to get financed. “There’s not a lot of risk capital in early-stage companies,” Abuchowski says. Funding becomes more likely (because it becomes less risky) at the clinical trial stage. At this level, investors can see that what you’re working on is actually showing some sign of its intended purpose.
“To be successful,” Abuchowski says, “you have to be successful.” You also have to be aware of the critical mass. Biotech, like any other industry, can become oversaturated if people are not careful. Too many companies vying for limited dollars can thin the pool, leaving promising companies wanting and redundant companies everywhere. “You just can’t have an infinite number of companies,” he says.
Prolong. These funding issues do not affect Prolong because the company is privately funded. And it’s doing so well that it has three new drugs in the pipeline. One, Sanguinate, which delivers oxygen to hypoxic tissue and is showing excellent results for treating sickle cell anemia, is already in Phase II. The other two (one that reduces red blood cells in amemia patients and one that reduces white blood cells to combat the propensity toward infection that follows chemotherapy) will be in Phase II by mid-year.
“All of them are working extremely well,” Abuchowski says. “No safety issues yet. We’re all very upbeat.”
Abuchowski is also upbeat about his company’s expansion. Though small (50 people), Prolong is expanding its South Plainfield headquarters with a new lab space, bringing the company up to 60,000 square feet.
Actually, Abuchowski is pretty upbeat about the whole biotech industry right now. With more education about how (and when) to seek funding and more investors looking to support promising technologies for the promise of a solid return, times are good for pharma.
“Things right now are really wonderful,” he says. “That’s the best way I can say it.”