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December 7, 2016

Pharmaceutical woes abound

Synta Pharmaceuticals’ annual holiday soiree took place this past weekend in a Doubletree hotel ballroom off the Middlesex Turnpike in Bedford, Mass.

In spite of the tables crowned with expertly-folded napkins and Cellophane-wrapped truffles, however, the party hardly stacked up against those from years past. Instead of the usual State Street hotel with valet parking and an open whisky bar, employees found themselves lost down a dark road looking for Doubletree and a small abbreviated sign reading: “Synta Hlday Prty.”

Upon arrival, guests found neither concierge nor coatroom. They received terse greetings in the form of two free drink tickets and an awkward shrug from co-workers.

Before dinner, guests lingered hungrily in the lounge over a sparse appetizer of cubed Swiss cheese and crackers, while black-vested waiters swooped in like opportunistic birds to snatch up empty Heinekens and bare toothpicks. No stuffed mushrooms or fried calamari were to be found at this year’s party.

 Synta employees mingled as comfortably as scientists could, eyeing the closed ballroom doors with an apparent indifference. But beneath the façade of Frank Sinatra and cocktail attire, a cautious reserve floated in the air.

No one was saying it. But in everyone’s mind loitered the memory of last year’s holiday party. They remembered how Synta’s ambitious 40-year-old Wall-Street millionaire CEO and company President Safi Bahcall heaped bloated praise upon their most promising and belabored project, the melanoma drug Elesclomol.

 That night, Bahcall relentlessly hammered into his audience how Elesclomol would pass phase-3 clinical trials and gain FDA approval. He promised how all Synta employees, big or small, were going to collect on the huge payday of a publicly marketable cancer drug.

And they remembered how just a few months after the party, suddenly Elesclomol’s big clinical trial was suspended, 90 of 220 employees let go and the rest left wondering: what happened?

With stomachs full of wine and beer, Synta employees were finally ushered into the ballroom Saturday night and seated at snugly arranged tables encircling a large stage and dance floor. Hotel workers were hastily setting up a podium and PA equipment as guests unfolded their artfully placed serviettes and positioned them in their laps. The disc jockey quieted the blaring roar of the trumpets in Sinatra’s “Chicago,” and someone thumped the microphone on stage and said, “Check.”

Synta employees were going to get some sort of answer.

A short olive-skinned man with curly black hair mounted the stage. As if he had been there many times before, he scanned the room with a friendly smile while coolly unfolding a few sheets of paper. Of course, he hardly needed them, as this man was Safi Bahcall.

He began with a characteristic stateliness reminiscent of last year’s address. Bahcall rightfully praised the resiliency of the biopharmaceutical company through the tough times ensuing the shutdown of Elesclomol. But as he drew towards a close, the words of the ambitious, if not quixotic, company president slipped slowly into the old rhetoric.

He said in a year, Synta would bounce back with other drugs, other trials and other investors, a feat that the chemists and statisticians present knew was just another unreachable dream.

“Synta enjoys a unique position in this industry,” Bahcall said. “We are neither too small to innovate nor too large and bureaucratic to pursue those innovations.”

Bahcall touched upon the specific setbacks of Elesclomol in the phase-three trial of last year, however, with calculated brevity.

“Biopharmaceuticals are about taking risks,” he said. “If you look at the big players in the industry now, you’ll see they share a common history: at one point, they were shut down in phase-3 but they didn’t give up.”

Synta isn’t giving up either. In fact, last month the company offered 5,555,556 shares of its common stock at a price of $4.80 per share, totaling near $25 million in gross proceeds. That money will go into the company’s financial lifeline, a carefully crafted, but limited budget.

More importantly, it’s a sign that Bahcall’s company has no intention of cutting its losses. In this strange industry, success often comes from a mixture of blind faith and uncompromising objectivity. Biopharmaceutical companies, like Synta, justify the layoffs, the stock trading and investments with the idea that they are working towards a humanitarian goal. And they are.

For every one drug approved by the FDA, 10 are shut down. In the end, the majority of companies in the multi-billion dollar biopharmaceutical industry produce, essentially, nothing. They push the frontiers of science and pay their employees with money made on promises. Sometimes their drugs work, sometimes not, because it’s a high stakes game.

After digesting the speech and heavy cream sauce on the fish entree Saturday night, the guests hesitatingly peeled themselves off their chairs and onto the dance floor where Ol’ Blue Eyes chimed on again in full swing. Gradually the floor filled, and the mood lightened. Who could tell if this party should be their last?

Evan Haddad is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at ehaddad@student.umass.edu.

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