One night in 1978 in the middle of the energy crisis, Garo Armen was driving home from his job as a research associate in photosynthesis at Brookhaven National Laboratories in Long Island, NY, when he stopped at a gas station. "I noticed that gas pumps only had two digits [for the per gallon price]," recalls Armen, now CEO of New York City-based Antigenics. "Realizing that continued rising prices would force the pumps to be replaced in the near future, I borrowed $5,000 to invest in gas pumps." Soon enough, virtually every gas pump in America was replaced – and Armen had made $20,000. His interest in business was piqued, and had already paid off.
Armen earned a PhD in chemistry in 1979, but with an interest in financial markets kindled, he moved to Wall Street in 1981 where he worked for financial services firm E.F. Hutton as a chemical and pharmaceutical analyst. In 1989, Armen established his own life sciences money management fund, and in 1993, brokered the merger of American Cyanamid's and Immunex's cancer businesses.
Part of his job at the time was meeting with scientists to assess new technologies. "As an investor, I was used to things being packaged and overpackaged," says Armen. But his meeting with Pramod Srivastava, then at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, was different. Srivastava presented mounting evidence that heat shock proteins (HSPs), acting as cellular chaperones, produce highly specific immune, or antigenic, responses to disease. Although HSPs are identical in all patients, the antigens they attach to are highly specific, varying by tumor type and patient. HSPs attach to antigenic peptides derived from an individual's tumor. The HSP-antigen complex – which Antigenics calls the antigenic fingerprint – interacts with antigen-presenting cells to trigger a specific immune response.
"The more I heard, the more compelling this technology sounded. At the time, I had no desire to found a biotech company or become a CEO. But the technology made so much sense that I thought that not to pursue it would be morally inexcusable," says Armen. He understood that a business model based on individualized cancer vaccines would have many handicaps, "But I knew that if I didn't do it, no one else would."
So in 1994 – even as many immunologists remained skeptical, and others thought he was crazy to leave a flourishing career heading his own life sciences management fund – Armen once again followed his instincts and co-founded Antigenics with Srivastava to pursue the HSP approach.
New York City was the logical place for Armen to found Antigenics, whose headquarters are at Rockefeller Center. He's lived in the city for 35 years since emigrating from Istanbul, Turkey. It's where he attended college and earned his PhD in 1979 at the City University of New York. And it's where he moved into the business side of science, and where he can find outstanding people to staff the company. Armen feels strongly that it is vital to stay physically close to Wall Street, and plans to keep Antigenics' headquarters in the city even as the company expands and moves toward commercialization.
In 10 years, Armen, now 51, has built Antigenics into a 230-person company developing seven drugs, with $130 million in the bank, and a Lexington, Mass., manufacturing facility. Even as many other companies stopped trying to make personalized cancer vaccines, saying they were too expensive to produce, Antigenics pushed on. It costs them about $3,000 per patient to produce its personalized vaccines – more than standard chemotherapy, they acknowledge, but less than other cancer vaccines.
Antigenics' most advanced candidate, Oncophage, is currently finishing Phase III trials in renal cell carcinoma and metastatic melanoma; the company has ongoing earlier-stage trials in other cancers, with excellent results to date. In Phase II trials for treatment of metastatic colorectal cancer, more than half of the patients treated with Oncophage showed a significant immunologic response, which correlated to a statistically significant clinical response and survival advantage, according to the company. In Phase II trials for treatment of metastatic melanoma, half the patients given Oncophage showed cancer-specific immune responses without the toxicities seen with IL-2 and dacarbazine; those responses including the increased production of T cells that attack cancer cells. Designated by the Food & Drug Administration for the fast-track approval process and as an orphan drug, Oncophage should have final data within the next six months.
During Elan Pharmaceuticals' recent financial and credibility crisis, Armen took on the additional role of Elan's chairman and interim CEO to direct its recovery. It was just another decision perhaps some would question. "At each step, leaving science for business, and then leaving a prosperous business for the unknown to head Antigenics, strangers and friends thought I was out of my skull, and I guess I am a bit of an odd-ball," he says. "People like to tell you it can't be done because it hasn't been done before." The safe bet is that Armen's going to continue trying to prove they're wrong.