Ex-Takeda Exec Joins Nuvalent to Deliver Meaningful Medicines to Patients

Anna Protopapas_Nuvalent

Nuvalent Board Chair Anna Protopapas/Courtesy of Nuvalent 

On March 31, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Nuvalent announced that Anna Protopapas has been appointed as chair of its Board of Directors.

Protopapas brings an extensive oncology background to the table alongside her executive experience. She shared with BioSpace that she was originally led to work in the industry through her love of science. “Maybe I’m a little bit of a nerd. I just love the science, and I love the fact that ultimately, science leads to helping patients. In the 90s, I joined Millennium Pharmaceuticals. It was the best choice of my life.”

Protopapas has a long history of dynamic leadership in biotech. She served as president of Millennium and was a key part of the company’s integration into Takeda, where she led its $1.3 billion oncology business. She is president and CEO of Mersana Therapeutics, and has served on the Board of Directors for such companies as Dicerna Pharmaceuticals and Bioverativ.

James Porter, Ph.D., CEO of Nuvalent told BioSpace that he’s thrilled to see how quickly and successfully the company is growing. “It’s been a really exciting year. We presented data from our program at a major conference, and started our first clinical trial,” he said. “We’ve built a strong team that we continue to augment. I’m just really excited about the foundation we’re building to reach our ultimate goal, which is to grow a sustainable organization that can do this again and again for patients.”

Porter is a chemist by training and is passionate about applying innovative chemistry to solve problems. “We partner with experts who have developed earlier generation inhibitors to determine what we should solve for. We take learnings from patients to solve problems for them.”

The company has parallel lead programs with drug candidates that address both kinase resistance and selectivity in patients with non-small cell lung cancer. “In a few short years, we’ve made a lot of progress,” Porter said. “One of our programs is in clinical studies, and the other just cleared. We will have it in the clinic in the first half of this year. We’re listening to patients and working with physicians.”

The current Phase I study, ARROS-1, will be evaluating NVL-520. “It’s designed to address resistance mutations beyond first-generation inhibitors. It’s designed to treat patients and cross the blood-brain barrier. The compound is designed to avoid off-target inhibitors, which will help avoid safety challenges. This will drive more durable responses.”

IND clearance has just been granted for NVL-655, an ALK-selective inhibitor that will be evaluated in the ALKOVE-1 study during the second quarter of this year. Porter explained that “this will also address resistance mutations beyond approved inhibitors to drive responses for patients with no other options.”

Protopapas shared that she’s looking forward to contributing to Nuvalent’s next phase of growth. “This is a company that has really great science. It’s not just about the science, but about applying the science to solve real patient problems and bring meaningful medicines to patients. The combination is really exciting. We have a great team and a great set of investors. This is a team that has really delivered two very transforming molecules into the clinic in a short period of time.”

She also highlighted that the company has made these advancements in a particularly efficient way. “When I look at the next 12 to 24 months, the trajectory the company is on is exciting. We’ll see data from these patients from the trials, getting to proof of concept, and charting a path to bring these very important medicines to patients.”

Protopapas discussed the impact the medicines may have for patients down the line, noting that “at a very high level, we’ve learned over the past decade that ALK genes are important to inhibit for stopping cancer growth. We’ve also learned that mutations develop. James and his team have really tackled both the mutations and the selectivity. These are better-tolerated agents, but also ones that really try to prevent the proliferation of mutations.”

“We have the opportunity in our industry to sometimes interact with patients that have these types of cancers and advocacy groups that are incredibly motivated to find treatment options,” Porter shared. “These are medical needs where there are no available therapies. For us to work on something that can really benefit patients that have no options is incredibly rewarding. We’re on a path to helping patients.”

He noted that though drug discovery is challenging, it brings out the best in everyone from scientists to drug developers to those working to build companies. “This field really necessitates a team coming together. We’ve built a strong team over the past few years and we’re really excited about this announcement. Anna has extensive experience building organizations in oncology drug development. My team and I can learn from her.”

For those who hope to make a career in biotech, Protopapas said that teamwork leads to great rewards.

“This is probably the most complex team sport out there. If you’re someone who really wants to be challenged intellectually, who enjoys working on a complex team, this is a great industry. The rewards of success in terms of really knowing that you benefit patients are tremendous. James and I have worked for a long time in oncology. It’s true to say that almost all of us are touched in one way or another by cancer, whether it be a family member, a friend or an acquaintance. It’s great to know we’re having an impact on those people.”

She added that she’s optimistic about the advancing parallel lead candidate trials and that Nuvalent will soon have data to share. “The company has done a tremendous job and has a really bright future in front of it. I’m honored to be asked to chair the board.”

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