Scrolling Headlines:

UMass women’s basketball handles Duquesne at home -

January 16, 2017

UMass men’s basketball’s late comeback falls short after blowing 15-point first-half lead -

January 15, 2017

UMass hockey outlasted at home against No. 6 UMass Lowell -

January 14, 2017

Hailey Leidel hits second buzzer beater of the season to give UMass women’s basketball win over Davidson -

January 13, 2017

UMass football hosts Maine at Fenway Park in 2017 -

January 12, 2017

UMass men’s basketball snaps losing streak and upsets Dayton Wednesday night at Mullins Center -

January 11, 2017

UMass women’s track and field takes second at Dartmouth Relays -

January 10, 2017

UMass hockey falls to No. 5 Boston University at Frozen Fenway -

January 8, 2017

UMass professor to make third appearance on ‘Jeopardy!’ -

January 8, 2017

UMass women’s basketball suffers brutal loss on road against Saint Joseph’s -

January 7, 2017

UMass men’s basketball drops thirds straight, falls to VCU 81-64 -

January 7, 2017

UMass men’s basketball drops tightly-contested conference matchup against George Mason Wednesday night -

January 4, 2017

Late-game defense preserves UMass women’s basketball’s win against rival Rhode Island -

January 4, 2017

AIC shuts out UMass hockey 3-0 at Mullins Center -

January 4, 2017

UMass professor to appear as contestant on ‘Jeopardy!’ Thursday night -

January 4, 2017

Penalties plague UMass hockey in Mariucci Classic championship game -

January 2, 2017

UMass men’s basketball falls in A-10 opener to St. Bonaventure and its veteran backcourt -

December 30, 2016

UMass woman’s basketball ends FIU Holiday Classic with 65-47 loss to Drexel -

December 29, 2016

UMass men’s basketball finishes non-conference schedule strong with win over Georgia State -

December 28, 2016

Brett Boeing joins UMass hockey for second half of season -

December 28, 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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