Ex-GSK cancer chief Paoletti scores $29M war chest for multiple myeloma startup Kesios

Paolo Paoletti

When Paolo Paoletti joined GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) in 2011 to build an oncology group, the number of cancer specialists on staff ranged in the dozens. By the time GSK decided to scrap the organization in a swap with Novartis ($NVS), he had recruited 2,000 staffers around the world working on a full pipeline of therapies.

Today, Paoletti's joined a migration of R&D experts who have been leaving Big Pharma and moving into biotech. And he's back to working with about a dozen staffers at the fledgling Kesios Therapeutics, a London-based spinoff from Imperial College with plans to move its first drug into the clinic in the coming months.

A trio of marquee venture investors in the U.K.--Imperial Innovations Group (AIM: $IVO), SV Life Sciences and Abingworth--has come up with £19 million ($29 million) A round to fund the initial R&D work ahead.

That money will be put to use pursuing the nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB) pathway, restoring apoptosis to eliminate certain white blood cells that play a big role in multiple myeloma, and then branching out to other tumor types.

"Literally, I was fascinated by the science," says the newly minted biotech CEO about his introduction to Kesios. "There was a molecule ready to go to clinical trial, everything was in place." The game plan now is to launch a Phase I study in early 2016, building on the preclinical evidence of its impact on multiple myeloma, pursuing a first-in-class, targeted drug that can add to the roster of new drug approvals.

And to hear the Big Pharma vet tell it, the change from big, global and slow to small, fast and targeted has been a welcome relief.

"The biggest difference is the bureaucracy," says Paoletti. "In the last years, Big Pharma has been unbearable. Even at a high level to make a decision takes a lot of time. Now we sit down" and the small team can act at "the speed of light in comparison to pharma."

And that's not just true regarding GSK. "I think it's the same in the industry," says Paoletti.

Biotech, which has been running fast and furious in recent years, has proven a rich temptation for a number of top Big Pharma execs. Briggs Morrison recently left a leading role in AstraZeneca's ($AZN) R&D group to move to Syndax. Booted from his CEO role at Sanofi ($SNY), Chris Viehbacher has gone into the biotech venture world.  And plenty of other top scientists have taken the same track.

Jane Robertson, who helped lead clinical development of Lynparza at AstraZeneca, is also making the pharma-biotech switch, taking the chief medical officer's role at Kesios, while Vertex ($VRTX) vet Peter Charlton joined Kesios as CSO. Kate Bingham, SV Life Sciences, and Kurt von Emster, Abingworth, have joined the Kesios Board.

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