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HGS eager to break into elite class of biotechs

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By Steven Overly
Monday, December 6, 2010

In the spring of 2009, the staff of Human Genome Sciences gathered in an auditorium at the nearby Universities at Shady Grove for one of three companywide meetings held each year.

But chief executive H. Thomas Watkins didn't prepare departmental reports or formal presentations as usual. Instead, he stood on stage and simply answered employees' questions for nearly two hours.

The company's stock had sagged below a dollar. Its then-flagship drug had provoked troubling, and ultimately insurmountable, side effects. And the next product in line was an experimental drug to fight lupus; no new medication had succeeded in helping people afflicted with that dread disease in 50 years.

The prospects looked bleak to many outside the company's Rockville headquarters.

"Our message that day was, 'Here is where we are,' " Watkins said. " 'Here are the things that are going on that are on plan, here's the things that are a little disappointing . . . but let's remember what our strategy is, what our direction is.' "

That direction has brought HGS to where it stands today, poised to produce the region's next blockbuster drug if Benlysta earns Food and Drug Administration approval.

Benlysta, developed in partnership with GlaxoSmithKline, would not only be among a select number of products born from the genomics era, but its success could catapult HGS into a class of billion-dollar biotechs that is rare in the Mid-Atlantic region.

ROOTS IN RESEARCH

Harvard Medical School researcher William Haseltine started the company in 1992 when much of the biotechnology community was following efforts to map the 20,000 genes in human DNA.

The company attracted large sums of investment capital to fund ambitious research projects.

"They were caught in that frenzy during the '90s when people knew that biotech had this great potential . . . and [everybody] was throwing a lot of money after it," said Ric Zakour, executive director of the Tech Council of Maryland's biotechnology division. Haseltine "was a big-picture type guy. I think he ran the company very well during that era."

But smart minds and innovative research had not created commercial products. As investors began to realize the benefits of genomics were years away, the stock value of HGS and many other companies at the time took a hit.


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