Corrections or additions?
This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the January 21, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Life in the Fast Lane
Jonathan Nyce, the 54-year-old founder and former CEO of biotech firm
EpiGenesis Pharmaceuticals Inc., has confessed to beating his wife to
death, according to police accounts. The body of Michelle Nyce, 34,
was found in her sport utility vehicle in a creek near the couple’s
Hopewell home on Friday morning, January 16. Nyce is being held on $2
million cash bail at Mercer County Correctional Facility and was
scheduled to be arraigned on charges of first degree murder in Mercer
County Superior Court on Tuesday, January 20.
Four years ago Nyce was convinced that he was a pioneer in what he
called "the pharmacology of the future." He was the subject of a U.S.
1 cover story, "Flipping Off the Asthma Switch," on March 17, 1999. He
planned to use antisense therapies to disable harmful genes and make
the treatment of respiratory diseases as easy as flipping a genetic
Well-liked by his staff, Nyce had a reputation for being a brilliant
scientist with a great deal of self confidence. This self confidence
may have made Nyce vulnerable in business, says an insider, who
believes Nyce overestimated how easy it would be to use his academic
brilliance to succeed in the pharmaceutical marketplace. But in
difficult economic times, his company foundered, and new investors
shelved Nyce’s technology and replaced him as CEO. He left the company
in March, 2003.
It must have been a crushing blow. Nyce lost not only his new drug
idea and his original platform technology, but also a job that would
be very hard to replace. Nyce has a doctoral degree but is not a
physician, and he had given up a tenured teaching position to make the
Nyce was particularly passionate about his technology because, as
children, both he and his brother suffered from asthma. In a 1999
interview he told of experiencing a severe reoccurrence of asthma, of
having coughing fits while he was trying to give a paper at a
professional meeting. He said he was empathetic to other asthma
sufferers and noted that each year approximately 7,000 people die from
asthma-related illnesses. Said Nyce then: "It’s hard to imagine
something worse than not being able to breathe."
A story that Nyce told four years ago seems ironic now. It was about
his father, a machine designer in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, who
"worked around the clock one night to design the machinery to knit the
first pair of pantyhose. But because he had a new family, he was
unable to capitalize on that discovery, whereas his partner was able
to run with it. He told me that if I were ever in a similar position,
to be sure I could capitalize on it."
Nyce did indeed run into trouble when it came time to capitalize on
his discoveries. The first of his family to attend college, he went to
Temple University and earned a PhD from the Fels Research Institute at
Temple University’s School of Medicine. When he moved to Los Angeles,
where he did post graduate work in the Children’s Hospital and then at
the Kenneth Norris Cancer Center, he reportedly became an expert
In 1987 he returned to the East Coast, this time to North Carolina. At
East Carolina University’s School of Medicine, he was tenured, a full
professor in the department of molecular pharmacology and
Nyce founded his company in 1995. He had two candidates for clinical
trials for asthma and one for cancer, and he thought his gene-based
therapies could also work for other respiratory diseases. In 1998 he
moved from North Carolina, first to 5,000 square feet at Exit 8A and
in 2000 to 20,000 feet at 7 Clarke Drive, owned by Eastern Properties.
In addition to Nyce’s personal investment in the company, by March,
1999, he had raised a total of $11 million in two private placements
of stock. He was heartened by both the money and the scientific
validation he was getting from the National Institutes of Health, and
at one point noted that "the reviewers made embarrassingly nice
comments." In 2001 EpiGenesis had a $100 million contract to license
its experimental asthma drug to a Taisho Pharmaceuticals in Tokyo, and
an ongoing $15 million deal with a firm in Italy, Chiesi Farmaceutici.
In ordinary times, Nyce’s company and his technology – using gene
therapy to target asthma – might have succeeded. And clinical trials
proved one of his therapies partially successful. But meanwhile most
of the EpiGenesis funding, other than government grants, was coming
from a key collaboration with the Japanese firm.
This was during the dotcom bubble, when Internet companies were
sucking money away from biotech. And at the moment when Nyce needed to
raise some serious money, the web bubble had burst. EpiGenesis had
only a small investor base, and new potential investors had empty
"In a different time the former team could have raised money both to
support the development of the compounds and the development of the
platform. In this environment investors are very conservative," said
David Ramsey (U.S. 1, September 10, 2003). Ramsey is a partner at Care
Capital LLC, a life sciences venture capital group on Hulfish Street
that restructured EpiGenesis in 2002. Jan Leschly, the CEO of Care
Capital and formerly CEO of SmithKline Beecham, holds the post of
chairman of EpiGenesis. Care Capital’s investment attracted additional
money from the New Jersey Technology Council Venture Fund.
The investors in the 2003 $23 million financing round, who now own the
controlling interest, hired Dan Soland as CEO and Joanne Leonard as
CFO. They downsized the company, going from 17,000 square feet in the
20,000 foot space, to 7,000 feet, and the remainder is being marketed
as a sublease. They eliminated any work on cancer and put the
development of Nyce’s platform technology on hold. For instance, an
early product was effective in patients who were not already receiving
doses of inhaled steroids. But any asthma patient with enough money to
pay for medication is already being dosed with inhaled steroids, so
the market for Nyce’s therapy was not considered promising.
His product was shelved, and the development of his platform
technology was also put on hold. Instead, the company started work on
an asthma product unconnected with Nyce, one that had been licensed
from elsewhere. The company drastically downsized, shrinking from
17,000 square feet to 5,000 square feet, and new executives were
brought in. Nyce retains some ownership in the company, but in March,
2003, he left the firm. Leonard says she has not been in contact with
Late last year Nyce and his wife put their house on Keithwood Court up
for sale for $1.6 million. They had bought the house from a developer
for $800,000 and moved there in 2000 from Sayre Drive in Plainsboro.
It is not known whether Jonathan Nyce had found employment, but
Michelle was working part-time as a beauty consultant at Macy’s in
A native of the Philippines, she was 20 years younger than her
husband. According to friends of the family, the couple met 14 years
ago on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, where Jonathan was attending a
conference. Michelle has been described as a warm and caring person
who made friends easily, a wonderful mother who, after having had
three children (the oldest is in sixth grade), could still have been a
Though husband and wife seemed affectionate, their marital
disagreements started, say friends of the family, well before Nyce
lost control of the company. The Trentonian newspaper quoted
Jonathan’s mother as saying that her son provided well for Michelle
and her family but that she always wanted more. It also quoted
Michelle’s friends who said that Jonathan was "insecure," "jealous,"
and "over protective."
Michelle Nyce was last seen alive at 9:45 p.m. Thursday, January 15,
when she left her job at Macy’s. Police found her dead on Friday
morning in her sport utility vehicle in Jacobs Creek, near the
couple’s Hopewell home. Initial news accounts quoted the police saying
that footprints in the snow led away from the car. An autopsy showed
that she had died of blunt force trauma to the head.
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