Cell Game: Sam Waksal's Fast Money and False Promises--and the Fate of ImClone's Cancer Drug

Cell Game: Sam Waksal's Fast Money and False Promises--and the Fate of ImClone's Cancer Drug

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by Alex Prud'homme

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"It began with a promising cancer drug, the brainchild of a gifted researcher, and grew into an insider trading scandal that ensnared one of America's most successful women. The story of ImClone Systems and its "miracle" cancer drug, Erbitux, is the quintessential business saga of the late 1990s. It's the story of big money and cutting-edgescience, celebrity, greed

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"It began with a promising cancer drug, the brainchild of a gifted researcher, and grew into an insider trading scandal that ensnared one of America's most successful women. The story of ImClone Systems and its "miracle" cancer drug, Erbitux, is the quintessential business saga of the late 1990s. It's the story of big money and cutting-edgescience, celebrity, greed, and slipshod business practices; the story of biotech hype and hope and every kind of excess.

At the center of it all stands a single, enigmatic figure named Sam Waksal. A brilliant, mercurial, and desperate-to-be-liked entrepreneur, Waksal was addicted to the trappings of wealth and fame that accrued to a darling of the stock market and the overheated atmosphere of biotech IPOs. At the height of his stardom, Waksal hobnobbed with Martha Stewart in New York and Carl Icahn in the Hamptons, hosted parties at his fabulous art-filled loft, and was a fixture in the gossip columns. He promised that Erbitux would "change oncology," and would soon be making $1 billion a year.

But as Waksal partied late into the night, desperate cancer patients languished, waiting for his drug to come to market. When the FDA withheld approval of Erbitux, the charming scientist who had always stayed just one step ahead of bankruptcy panicked and desperately tried to cash in his stock before the bad news hit Wall Street.

Waksal is now in jail, the first of the Enron-era white-collar criminals to be sentenced. Yet his cancer drug has proved more durable than his evanescent profits. Erbitux remains promising, the leading example of a new way to fight cancer, and patients and investors hope it will be available soon.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Since the ImClone scandal first broke, most of the media's attention has focused on CEO Sam Waksal's insider trading and the charges filed against Martha Stewart, a close friend and investor in the pharmaceutical company. Prud'homme, who first reported on ImClone for Vanity Fair, reminds readers of the bigger story, the one that set the financial hijinx in motion: ImClone's failed attempt to bring a potentially groundbreaking cancer medication, Erbitux, to market. This story tells of scientists like John Mendelsohn, who led the research into C225, the antibody at the heart of Erbitux, and patients like Shannon Kellum, a 28-year-old woman diagnosed with colon cancer for whom the medication was a "miracle drug" that added a few years to her life. She was one of the rare lucky ones; Prud'homme's reporting is especially strong when he delves into the seemingly haphazard way in which ImClone distributed C225 for "compassionate use" during the clinical testing period. The FDA's rejection of ImClone's "scientifically incomplete" test data was the immediate motivation for Waksal's crimes, but Prud'homme's portrayal suggests it was completely in character for the reckless social-climbing executive, described by acquaintances as a "pathological liar" who cared more about making money than about curing cancer. Prud'homme ends his compelling account with Waksal's sentencing, and even though he'll inevitably have to update the paperback to wrap up coverage of the Martha Stewart trial, it's well worth reading the book now to appreciate what's really at stake in ImClone's downfall. (Feb.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Sometimes, fact is far stranger than fiction. The rise and fall of ImClone is a dramatic example, starting with the story of its co-founders, Sam and Harlan Waksal; the "breakthrough" cancer drug Erbitux developed by Dr. John Mendelsohn; the thousands of desperate cancer patients waiting to use this experimental drug; and the insider trading scandal that ultimately brought down Sam Waksal (and for which Martha Stewart is going to trial). Journalist Prud'homme has written a fast-paced, absorbing, and dramatic account that not only explores the events leading up to the scandal but also the story of ImClone and the development of Erbitux, plus stories of the scandal's true victims-cancer patients such as Shannon Kellum, who were granted at least temporary reprieves from the ravages of cancer. Prud'homme has done extensive research and interviewed key players in the saga, as well as cancer patients. An important, excellent book that makes for fascinating reading, this is highly recommended to public and academic libraries.-Lucy Heckman, St. John's Univ. Lib., Jamaica, NY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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The Cell Game
Sam Waksal's Fast Money and False Promises--and the Fate of ImClone's Cancer Drug

Chapter One

Cancer Cells Are Smart

Six feet tall, trim, with white hair, a long-featured face, and intelligent hazel eyes, Dr. John Mendelsohn was one of the most accomplished cancer fighters in the world. He wasn't loud or physically imposing, but his fecund mind, forthright demeanor, and implacable resolve drew people to him naturally. The son of a traveling salesman from Cincinnati, Mendelsohn had proven himself a brilliant researcher and teacher, an exceptional administrator and fund-raiser. Yet he was not the kind who took his talents for granted. John Mendelsohn was driven to "use science to improve life."

One prize had eluded him, maddeningly, for over two decades: the commercialization of the monoclonal antibody C225, a potentially revolutionary cancer drug. C225, later called "Erbitux," was Mendelsohn's brainchild. It had alternately inspired and vexed him since 1980, when he and a small group of collaborators at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), had made their earliest discoveries about "targeted treatment" cancer drugs. The lack of time and money had been their main constraints, as in most creative undertakings, but their novel ideas about how to fight cancer had also met with academic hostility and commercial resistance. Several times Mendelsohn had arranged deals with pharmaceutical companies to develop C225, only to have the agreement fall apart. He was quick to note that this is the nature of science, that developing new drugs is a risky and difficult business, that any worthwhile quest requires trial and error. "You haven't crossed home plate until you've crossed home plate," he'd say stoically.

Mendelsohn was convinced that C225 would one day extend the lives of many cancer victims, that it would be the most significant personal contribution he could make to the war on cancer. When he spoke of his campaign to bring the cancer drug C225 from idea to the laboratory to the marketplace and "get it into patients," Mendelsohn's voice would tighten, his brow would furrow, and his eyes would blaze intensely -- revealing for just a moment the steely determination that lay beneath his genial exterior.

At the end of May 2001, Mendelsohn, who was 64, was the guest of honor at a luncheon in New York City for more than 100 members of the nation's social and intellectual elite. The gathering was a fund-raiser for Houston's M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, the nation's largest cancer hospital, which Mendelsohn had run since 1996. The lunch was attended by President George H. W. Bush, a friend from Houston who sat on the board of visitors at the Anderson, and it was hosted by Martin Zweig, a Wall Street tycoon. Encompassing the entire top floor of the opulent Pierre Hotel, on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, the Zweig apartment was like a castle in the sky: the walls were eclectically decorated with Renoir paintings, Beatles memorabilia, and the sparkling white dress Marilyn Monroe had worn to sing "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy in 1962. Framed by its expansive windows were breathtaking views over the long greensward of Central Park and around the gray, crenellated cityscape of midtown Manhattan. As he stood in that fabulous aerie at the start of the new century, nibbling canapés, graciously accepting compliments and some $475,000 in donations for M. D. Anderson, no one could begrudge Mendelsohn his feelings of relief, fulfillment, and cautious optimism.

The week before, C225 had been the star of the 37th annual ASCO conference (American Society for Clinical Oncology), the largest gathering of cancer specialists in the world. There, ImClone Systems, Inc., the small Manhattan biotech firm that had licensed Mendelsohn's drug, had made a stunning announcement: in clinical trials, 22.5 percent of colon cancer patients who had used a cocktail of C225 and irinotecan, a standard chemotherapy, had responded positively, meaning their tumors shrank by more than fifty percent. This was the best response rate ever achieved in patients who previously had no hope for survival. The oncology community had reacted with a thundering ovation. There had been a burst of media coverage. ImClone's stock began to climb. And, to cap it all off, ImClone's CEO, Sam Waksal, had begun secret negotiations with the pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb for a landmark deal that finally promised to bring C225 to market.

Circulating in the noosphere of the Zweig apartment, Mendelsohn's gaze slipped out the window, and over the breathtaking views to fix on the bright, indefinite horizon. After all of the false starts and setbacks, he wondered, what could possibly go wrong now?

The history of modern biotechnology began on April 25, 1953, when James Watson and Francis Crick announced in the British journal Nature that they had unlocked the three-dimensional structure of the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule. DNA is the "master molecule," the structure of which is encoded with the information needed to create and direct the chemical processes of life. The gracefully spiraled structure, known as the double helix, was the key to understanding the technology of life. Watson and Crick's discovery would earn them the Nobel Prize (Watson was only 34 years old at the time), and would raise many intriguing questions, foremost of which was: Could DNA be manipulated? Could life itself be manipulated?

It was a question, and a challenge, that would motivate an entire generation of scientists to produce some of the most exhilarating medical discoveries in history. It would also set off a philosophical debate: biotechnology was seen as either a Promethean quest to save mankind or a Faustian meddling. In his 1969 book about the discovery of DNA, The Coming of the Golden Age: A View of the End of Progress, Gunther Stent described man's ability to manipulate DNA as a sign of the end to social and economic evolution ...

The Cell Game
Sam Waksal's Fast Money and False Promises--and the Fate of ImClone's Cancer Drug
. Copyright © by Alex Prud'homme. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Meet the Author

Alex Prud'homme is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, the New York Times, Time, and People.

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Cell Game: Sam Waksal's Fast Money and False Promises--and the Fate of ImClone's Cancer Drug 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
An interesting portrayal of biotech mania, the desperation of an entrepreneur (Waksal) and how corporate pharmaceutical companies need new products. I loved it. It was riveting and I could not put it down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This gripping story has appeared just as Martha Stewart's trial is underway. It's a fascinating thriller. Sam Waksal is shown to be a world-class charmer and an amazing salesman, but flawed because he has no sense of right or wrong. He's a classic striver who needs recognition and seeks great wealth, but has little feeling for those suffering from cancer. The story also details how closely intertwined the lives of Martha Stewart and Waksal became. A great read and well researched. Here's the real story behind the trial.