What’s next for the man who landed big pharma’s billions

May 24, 2024

What’s next for the man who landed big pharma’s billions

Some of the biggest drug companies on the planet have paid a fortune for Professor Andrew Wilks patents, and he’s now raised $30m to bankroll fledgling biotechs.

There is an old saying that no one left the famed Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research unless they were taken out in a box.

In 1997, Professor Andrew Wilks broke the mould. He and his team of scientists at the Ludwig’s Melbourne branch had built a reputation on the global stage for discovering a revolutionary family of proteins called the JAK kinases, and it was now time to commercialise them.

By then, Wilks had had enough of academia.

Antony “Tony” Burgess, for decades one of the nation’s top cancer researchers and the then director of the Ludwig – which is now part of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre – gave Wilks six months to raise the money to start a new biotech company.

“Having been fairly well regarded in a big lab of young scientists, I was very much viewed as a social pariah to have gone over to the dark side,” Wilks recalls with a smile.

“So I did raise some money – about half a million dollars – from an Albuquerque investment bank. Those words should have caused me alarm.

“But I had a joyous Christmas that year thinking I’d made the right decision. Then, by the end of January, the investment bank had taken all of the money.

“So I had no job, no income and I couldn’t return to the Ludwig.”

Incredibly, Wilks resorted to being a professional chess player for six months, and competed in the Australian lightning chess championships.

The rest of the time he mostly sat at his desk at home, often unshaven and in his pyjamas, typing up business models and business plans to recapitalise his company.

Those painful months were critical in giving birth to a business named Cytopia, one of Australia’s earliest ASX-listed drug discovery companies.

It went on to sell assets worth more than $3bn to the biggest pharmaceutical companies on the planet, including Pfizer, Merck and Servier.

The patents developed by Wilks and his team who started Cytopia in the high-security jail ward of Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital – one reserved for criminals needing medical treatment – were licensed by the firm and taken through preclinical and early clinical development.

The proteins they discovered in four years are now worth billions of dollars.

Momelotinib is the best known, which pharmaceutical titan GSK bought for $1.9bn in 2022.

Last year it became only the second Australian drug discovery to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

While it was initially approved as a treatment for bone cancer, the molecule could yet gain approvals for treating a number of inflammatory diseases.

Last year Wilks launched his own biotech fund known as SYNthesis BioVentures, targeting early stage thera­peutics. He hopes history will repeat itself, funding research for a range of cancer treatments which could again change the world.

He describes the experience of making a breakthrough discovery as “truly addictive”.

“The idea that you are the first person on the planet to hold a piece of information in your hand; there is literally nothing quite like it,” he says with glee.

“To wind up with a molecule that’s going into patients and genuinely transforming people’s lives – people that would otherwise be dead, who would tragically miss seeing their grandchildren – is incredible. Those moments of triumph and those moments of fulfilment are actually really quite special.”

‘Every day is a school day’

Andrew Wilks grew up in council flats in northern England. His father, Fred, was a boilermaker who worked on the docks of the industrial city of Liverpool.

His parents saved enough money to send him to a grammar school many miles away from his home, but his father made sure to regularly indulge his son’s passions by bringing him home science magazines.

“Even on his way back from the docks in Liverpool, there was a chemistry firm that was selling things like copper sulfate and hydrochloric acid to schools,” Wilks recalls.

“He would buy me these things. I could never buy them because I was not old enough. So I’d be making bromine in my homemade laboratory in the shed in the backyard.

“Following the sciences was very much a natural path, but particularly biology-based stuff.

“There was a revolution happening within the biological sciences at that time around cloning and those sorts of things, so I kind of set myself on that path.”

But his life changed forever went his lost his mother, Winnie, to a heart attack when he was just 17. His younger brother was only 13 at the time.

“I mean, it’s the worst thing. It is just the worst thing,” Wilks says before a long, poignant pause. After composing himself, he continues.

“Over a bottle of whisky, my brother and I have talked about it because we were both there the moment it happened.

“My dad was out putting flowers on my grandma’s grave. When he came home he found his wife dead. It is very confronting.

“If I ever had any thoughts of doing clinical medicine as a profession, those completely stopped right there and then because I realised I couldn’t do it. It was so confronting and so terminal, literally having somebody die in front of you. And it was my mum.”

Wilks’ eldest grand-daughter is named Olive Winnie – her middle name honouring her late grandmother.

After dealing with his grief and completing a molecular biology degree followed by a PhD, Wilks moved to Switzerland where he spent three years at the Friedrich Miescher Institute.

He soon realised that molecular biologists had become the rock stars of science.

He recalls a fellow scientist being offered a job by an institute in Austria. He asked for a gold Ferrari as part of his package and they gave it to him, without hesitation.

In late 1982 the then Ludwig director, Tony Burgess, visited Switzerland and offered Wilks the opportunity of a lifetime to move to Melbourne to join one of the most prestigious cancer research institutions in the world.

Wilks was only 27 years old and his wife was pregnant when they moved across the globe.

“The Ludwig had been given $10m a year to run research so he made ridiculous promises, anything I wanted in terms of equipment. When I asked him ‘So what do you want me to do?’ He replied ‘Just do something interesting’.”

For two years Wilks and his wife detested the Melbourne summer heat, endlessly wondering if they had made a grave mistake to move down under.

Then when his children were born – he now has three daughters and a son – Wilks unexpectedly experienced an altruistic epiphany which drove him out of academia.

“This may sound ridiculously romantic, but you are trying to build a better world for them to live in. It sounds trite. But it’s a genuine feeling,” Wilks says.

“Every day is a school day when you are doing academic research. There’s a new puzzle to solve, there is that sense of creativity,” he says.

“It is quite an art, almost an artistic endeavour. It’s a great thing. But it actually wasn’t making any difference to anybody. Having discovered some really interesting molecules, not translating them to helping people seemed like the wrong thing to do.”

The rest of the story is now history.

Wilks has kept his lab coat full of brown and black spots from what he now calls “the good old days”. It is part of a collection from his past that he houses in a storage shed in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Abbotsford.

“You’d go into the darkroom with your lab coat on and you’d have a film and you’d dip it into the developer and you couldn’t wait to see what was on it,” he recalls.

“Then you would hold it up to the light and it would drip on your lab coat. That coat takes me back to the actual moments of doing these things that were so special.”

Tragedy a powerful driving force

While most biotech investors are on the lookout for the next blockbuster drug and billion-dollar payday, Wilks firmly believes there is money to be made from therapies that have only completed phase one trials and are yet to reach clinical studies.

SYNthesis BioVentures has just raised $30m from high-net-worth individuals and family offices to provide firms with capital to bridge what he calls “the valley of death” in biotech.

It has already backed two firms which have made significant discoveries and is about to bankroll a third.

But Wilks, now in his 60s, wants to back another 10 “before he dies”.

He also reveals that a shocking family tragedy four years ago, when he lost his son-in-law, has fuelled a fire within to find the molecule that will be the next momelotinib.

Eldest daughter Caitlin lost her husband, Joe, when he was only 37 years old. They have two children.

Joe was 33 when he contracted acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow.

Joe received a bone-marrow transplant, but developed graft-versus-host disease (GvHD) – a systemic disorder which occurs when the graft’s immune cells recognise the host as foreign and attack the recipient’s body cells. Essentially, his stem cell transplant reacted against him.

He went on a janus kinase inhibitor, also known as a JAK inhibitor or jakinib – a type of immune modulating medication also used in the treatment of cancer. Wilks’ great drug discovery, momelotinib, is one such inhibitor.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to be the hero of the family’,” he recalls solemnly.

Joe spent many of his last painful months in room 38 of ward 7B at Royal Melbourne Hospital, which looked out on the office of one of Wilks’ greatest mentors, Professor Don Metcalf.

Metcalf, who died in 2014, almost won the Nobel prize for discovering hormones that regulate blood-cell proliferation.

“When we visited Joe we would look down out of the window into Don Metcalf’s old office,” Wilks says.

“That was where Metcalf discovered the very molecule that was going into Joe’s arm.” He describes his son-in-law’s passing as “unbearably difficult”.

He now drives his grandchildren to school every Monday and Friday morning to help his daughter.

“You can’t choose your children’s spouses. But we all loved Joe so much that if they ever split up, we wanted custody of him. Because he was just such an extraordinarily beautiful human being,” he says.

SYNthesis BioVentures is now funding a firm developing a drug which could have saved Joe’s life.

After his wife’s death, Wilks’ father lived on his own for decades. Yet as he was preparing to celebrate turning 90, he was accidentally run down by a delivery van while crossing a street in the English county of Cheshire and subsequently died in hospital.

Wilks describes him as one of his heroes, for so long a supportive bedrock. Such was the pride of his father in Wilks’ work and his “professor” status, he used to regularly pass his son’s business card around the local pub.

None of Wilks’ children have followed in his footsteps as scientists. But he is excited that there is still hope the next generation will.

“My son is doing the juris doctor program at Melbourne University, one daughter is a social worker at Doncaster High School, another is a nurse and one is an accountant at KPMG,” he says.

“I think maybe I’m going to live off the latter daughter and my nursing daughter is going to be able to change my diapers when I am old. So we’ve got all the jobs sorted out.

“But I have one potential scientist in the grandchildren. So we are working on him right now.”

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