Taiho Oncology, the U.S. branch of a Japanese pharmaceutical company, is expanding in Carnegie Center following the FDA approval of its first U.S. product, a colorectal cancer drug called LONSURF.
The company moved from 202 to 101 Carnegie Center into a larger office due to the need to hire staff to begin commercializing the drug. “The move is about us having finally transitioned our business from a research and development organization, which we have been for 13 years, to now being a more fully integrated commercialization business,” CEO Eric Benn (pictured at right) said.
In the last two years, Taiho has grown from 64 to 170 people throughout the country, with 110 located in the headquarters and the rest field personnel including salespeople and medical liaisons. The staff were split between two offices, but the recent move brings them together under one roof. The new hires are mostly commercial and corporate support teams.
The drug LONSURF, approved by the FDA in September, was discovered in the company’s Tokyo labs and developed in the U.S. It is a pill that combines two drugs, triflurdine and tipiracil, and is intended to be used by patients with advanced colorectal cancer who are no longer responding to other therapies, according to the FDA.
Colorectal cancer, also known as bowel cancer, is deadly if not detected early. While LONSURF is not a cure for the disease, it does seem to slow the progression of advanced colorectal cancer. In a clinical trial of about 800 patients, the drug was able to add an average of two months to the life expectancy of patients, compared to a placebo, bringing the average survival from about five months to about seven months.
Benn said the drug is targeting a niche market — patients with refractory metastatic colorectal cancer. An estimated 1.1 million Americans have colorectal cancer, of which a smaller number have the refractory metastatic variety. He said the company is investigating the possibility of using the drug for earlier stage bowel cancer and for other types of cancer including gastric cancer.
Taiho is well established in the Asian market, with offices in Tokyo, Beijing, and Singapore, but the U.S. branch has yet to release a drug to the marketplace. Benn said there are six other drugs currently in the development pipeline in addition to LONSURF.
Benn joined Taiho in 2009 as COO and was promoted to CEO in 2010. When he came on board, Taiho was just 22 people. “This was probably one of the most special times of my career, to see something created from nothing,” he said.
Benn grew up in Ontario, Canada, the son of a factory worker father and a homemaker mother. He says his parents sacrificed to make sure he had the resources to go to college and build a career. He earned bachelor’s degrees in commerce; and in biology and microbiology from the University of Western Ontario. After college he traveled for a while until he ran out of money and had to come home, where his brother, already in the pharmaceutical industry, helped him get a job. He worked in various management positions for Bristol-Myers Squibb in Australia, Canada, and the U.S. until 2001, when he ran his own consulting firm before joining Taiho.
Benn says that for a relatively small company like Taiho, launching a drug and successfully completing the FDA approval process was no easy task. “We had to hire the best talent we could find,” he said. “We are a growing company, and we haven’t had the luxury of having a lot of junior positions. Everybody we have hired has not only great depth of experience, but they also have a lot of experience with colorectal cancer products. Although we are a relatively young company, if you talk about our total experience, we actually function as a very mature company.”
He said Taiho also had a leg up with LONSURF because the Tokyo lab had delivered a very good candidate drug. “You put those two things together, and some wonderful things can happen,” he said. The clinical trials, held in hospitals all around the world, were actually completed about three months ahead of schedule.
Benn says LONSURF is a major milestone for Taiho, being its first approved drug outside of Asia, and that more expansion lies in the future. “This is the first clear and most visible indication of Taiho’s goals to globalize its business,” he said.