Rare disease biotech Electra picks commercially-minded Kathy Dong as next CEO

Electra Therapeutics is several years away from having a commercial product. And yet, the biotech’s new CEO Kathy Dong’s resume is stacked with experience on marketing and launching drugs—most notably, Gilead’s Sovaldi and Harvoni.

So why this early-stage biotech for her first CEO role? Dong says it’s never too early to think about product marketing.

“What I bring to our team and early drug development is always reminding people … we may be six, seven years away from getting to the finish line,” Dong said in an interview with Fierce Biotech. “We have to think about these considerations that will come into play at the end of the line and build that into the development program early, so that when it gets there, it has the best chance of getting to as many patients that can benefit from it.”

That doesn’t mean Dong can’t hold her own at the bench. Throughout her career, she has worked “hand in hand” with the scientists and asked tough questions of the researchers.

“I always love going into the weeds on the science,” said Dong.

Her career began with a fellowship at Novartis working on the oral multiple sclerosis drug Gilenya. She later jumped to Gilead, where she spent nine years. At that point, Dong decided to move into earlier drug development and hopped to True North Therapeutics, a biotech eventually bought out by Bioverativ, which itself was cannibalized by Sanofi in 2018.

“Working in kind of the commercial arena, I came to realize that it's not just getting a drug approved, it's about getting it to as many patients as possible. To do that, you really have to pave the way for the drug's success,” Dong said. “It's a long journey to get to a drug approval.”

For the past five years, Dong has been with Star Therapeutics, a biotech portfolio company run by former executives from True North that raised $90 million in September. She’ll leave that behind in the shift to Electra, one of those portfolio biotechs formed to tackle rare diseases. Dong takes over the role from founding CEO Adam Rosenthal, Ph.D., who will continue as a board member and as CEO of Star.

Dong’s commercial background will face a particular challenge at Electra: how to sell a rare disease drug.

“When I say 'maximize the impact,' it doesn't have to be millions or hundreds of thousands [of patients]. It could be 10,000. It could be thousands,” Dong said. “But it's getting that drug to as many patients that can benefit as possible. So I don't see a difference in terms of my passion for that, whether it be a very prevalent disease or a rare disease.”

Electra’s ELA026 is being developed in a phase 1b study for the rare disease secondary hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (sHLH). As the company reveals Dong as its new CEO, ELA026 is also getting a spotlight thanks to a snapshot of data presented at the American Society of Hematology meeting.

sHLH is a life-threatening hyperinflammatory condition that is typically triggered by cancer, infections or autoimmune disease. The condition kicks off a systemic inflammatory response that requires aggressive and urgent treatment—however, there isn’t really a standard of care, Dong explained. Without treatment, patients can go on to experience organ failure and death. 

ELA026 spurred an overall response rate of 70% in all patients who received it. The ORR rose to 88% when Electra filtered out two patients who were not evaluable.

The trial has eight patients with malignancy-associated HLH (mHLH) and two with an unknown trigger. Dong said the ORR was achieved even though the patients had very poor prognostic and clinical indicators entering the study.

While the patient population is small, Dong said they have a good cross-section of patients with sHLH, those at earlier and later stages of their disease who are both treatment-naïve and pre-treated. So far, the treatment-naïve patients seem to be showing the greatest benefit from ELA026.

Recruiting was a challenge—as is the case with most rare diseases—and Dong said Electra had the added hurdle of enrolling during COVID.

“Based on our experience, our learning is you really have to engage the right sites. So it's not about quantity, but it's about quality,” Dong said.

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center was the perfect partner because they see thousands of patients and a subset of them will have sHLH.

“It's on their radar and because of the unmet need, they've just been so receptive [to] partnering with us,” Dong said.

ELA026 is obviously in its early days, but Electra is already planning to take the phase 1 results to the FDA to inform future development. Dong said that the former True North crew has experience bringing a rare disease drug all the way to approval, so that will come in handy.

One thing on Dong’s mind as she builds Electra is keeping the workforce at the right size. It’s been a brutal year for biotech, with thousands of people being laid off as the markets corrected from the sugar high of the pandemic years.

“We have a great legacy from Star where it was always about bringing in the right people and not growing too fast,” Dong said. “But for Electra, we're starting out with a great team that I would say is responsibly lean.”

Dong does have some hiring to do—which is unique in such a tight biotech market. She said Electra has been flooded with resumes from “great talent” in the few weeks since they put out the call.

Electra last raised funds in February 2022 with an $84 million series B, after previously receiving $100 million from Star. Dong said Electra has plenty of cash to cover its near-term milestones to meaningful value inflections, such as the completion of the phase 1 and transition to a pivotal study. Electra will also move some preclinical assets forward.

Beyond that, the incoming CEO was mum on what Electra’s future will look like in terms of an exit or more fundraising. She called back to her experience with True North eventually wrapping into Sanofi and said she would be open to conversations with all kinds of collaborators. Electra could also take ELA026 all the way to approval alone.

“This is a great situation for Electra where, given the circumstances, we have so many options on the table that we're not forced to have to entertain only one option,” Dong said.