BMS in vivo study director joins Apexigen to lead antibody discovery

Frances Rena Bahjat, Bristol-Myers Squibb’s former senior director of in vivo studies, has joined Apexigen in the newly created role of vice president for discovery research.

Bahjat will lead San Carlos, California-based Apexigen’s preclinical development of its immuno-oncology pipeline, and support its lead program for APX005M, a CD40 agonist currently undergoing a phase 2 trial in collaboration with the University of California, San Francisco.

At BMS, she oversaw biologics discovery pharmacology and in vivo antibody discovery operations at the company’s nearby Redwood City facility.

“Rena has significant experience in immunology and pharmaceutical research and development, including the discovery of numerous drug candidates across a diverse array of target classes and therapeutic areas,” President and CEO Xiaodong Yang said in a statement.

Before joining BMS, Bahjat was as an assistant professor at Oregon Health & Sciences University, where she conducted NIH-funded basic and translational research, as well as preclinical development of agonist therapeutics.

She has also served as associate director of pharmacology at Rigel Pharmaceuticals—where she developed kinase inhibitors for cancer, allergies and autoimmune diseases, including Tavalisse for chronic immune thrombocytopenia—and has held positions at Oncovir, Corgentech-AlgoRX, Nereus Pharmaceuticals and Nuvelo, now known as Arca Biopharma.

Apexigen’s discovery platform, APXiMAB, focuses on rabbit monoclonal antibodies and mutational lineage guided humanization, and has produced seven candidates for clinical development.

The company announced its collaboration with UCSF in October 2017. The phase 2 trial plans to evaluate APX005M in combination with chemotherapy and radiation therapy in patients with resectable esophageal and gastro-esophageal junction cancers.

In addition, Apexigen launched a phase 1b/2 open-label study last year combining APX005M with BMS’ Opdivo in pancreatic cancer, through a collaboration with the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy and the Cancer Research Institute. The two companies are also studying the combination in non-small cell lung cancer and metastatic melanoma.