Q&A with Dennis Henner on Innovative Therapies in the Fight Against Cancer
Earlier this week, Gilead Sciences announced that it will acquire Forty Seven, a clinical-stage biotechnology company developing new therapies for cancer patients. Clarus Ventures – now Blackstone Life Sciences – was an early investor in Forty Seven (NASDAQ: FTSV) in 2016. We sat down with Blackstone Life Sciences’ Dennis Henner to learn about Forty Seven’s research, the company’s partnership with Blackstone, and its potential impact on cancer therapy.
As Operating Partner at Blackstone Life Sciences, Dr. Dennis Henner has over 30 years of industry and investment experience within the healthcare sector. He was a co-founder of Clarus, and previously served as the Head of Research at Genentech. He serves on the board of Forty Seven.
How did you first become involved with Forty Seven, and what excited you about the company?
I’ve spent my career in the pursuit of novel therapeutics, first as a researcher developing biopharmaceuticals and more recently as an investor. Four years ago, I learned about Forty Seven, which was focused on finding more effective ways to target cancer. The company was working on a new class of immunotherapies, medicines that harness the immune system to kill tumor cells. Preclinical data from Stanford University suggested that this approach could potentially treat many different types of cancer. Forty Seven was looking for investors and a board member with a background in oncology drug development to help guide them. My colleagues and I at Clarus – now Blackstone Life Sciences – saw potential in this new approach, so we were among the early investors. I also joined their board.
Tell us about the science behind Forty Seven’s therapy.
Cancer cells often take advantage of a molecule known as CD47, also known as a “don’t eat me” signal, which helps them avoid detection by macrophages, our innate immune system’s first responders. Macrophages can be tricked by this “don’t eat me” signal to overlook cancer cells, allowing cancer to spread. Forty Seven’s main program, magrolimab, is an antibody designed to block the “don’t eat me” signal and restore macrophages’ ability to recognize and fight cancer cells.
As investors in Forty Seven, what role did the Blackstone Life Sciences team play?
We have always been active investors – meaning we do more than just provide capital. As a board member of Forty Seven, I would join regular scientific and technical meetings about clinical strategies. Our team was very active in helping Forty Seven design their clinical development plan and integrate it with potential financing and partnering strategies. We would bring in expertise and have thoughtful discussions about how and why patients responded to different therapies, and what additional clinical studies we could conduct. From inception, it’s been an extremely collaborative process.
How does Forty Seven’s work tie into Blackstone Life Sciences’ broader mandate?
Forty Seven’s work to develop magrolimab is consistent with Blackstone Life Sciences’ approach to drug development. We focus on bringing medicines and technologies to market that might not otherwise have the necessary funding. We do this by designing, funding and executing clinical trials for products in late-stage development. What is unique about our approach is the combination of our deep technical expertise with some of the most experienced investment professionals in the world – a rarity in the industry. Put simply: we commit our skill and scale to fund and advance what we believe to be the most promising life science products through hands-on involvement and directly applied expertise.
How would you describe the outlook for the cancer immunotherapy space?
The knowledge we’ve gained over the years about magrolimab provides us with a huge runway. As we increase our understanding of how cancers interact with the drug, we can apply that knowledge on a broader basis. In essence, we are better learning how to target cancer’s Achilles heel. I’m excited for Forty Seven’s next phase with Gilead Sciences and the potential to bring this promising cancer medicine to the market. At Blackstone, we are excited about continuing to invest to bring vital but underfunded medicines and technologies – with the potential to save lives – to market.
To learn more about Blackstone Life Sciences, listen to our episode of the Blackstone Podcast featuring the group’s Global Head, Nick Galakatos.
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