Former Biogen Exec Doug Williams to Head Startup Codiak BioSciences

Former Biogen Exec Doug Williams to Head Startup Codiak BioSciences
November 17, 2015
By Alex Keown, Breaking News Staff

CAMBRDIGE, Mass. – Three months after his departure as Vice President of Research and Development at Biogen , Doug Williams has emerged as the new chief executive officer of startup Codiak BioSciences, Inc., a company focused on developing exosome-based therapies and products. Williams sat down with BioSpace to discuss the new company and his move to the startup.

Codiak, which emerged from stealth mode today with $80 million in Series A and B financing, has plans to target pancreatic cancer using exosomes as a delivery system for therapeutic treatments to cancer cells. Animal models have shown exosome treatments can have dramatic and positive impacts on cancers. But as to how that will transfer into treatments for human patients, Codiak is remaining mum right now.

“Out of deference to my team, we’re not talking about the approach, except to say that the data is compelling enough to want to replicate in man,” Williams said.

What is known though, is that exosomes travel throughout the body acting as a mechanism for the body to communicate with itself. However, Williams said exosomes also have the capability of changing the biology of cells that “take them up,” which makes them such a compelling method for delivering payloads of proteins, enzymes and RNA to distant cells. Williams said Codiak’s treatments for cancers, including the deadly pancreatic cancer, will be able to be delivered to the tumors through exosomes. Codiak will work closely with researchers at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The company’s exosome technology was developed at MD Anderson in the laboratories of Raghu Kalluri, chairman of the cancer biology department. To bolster its work, Codiak has acquired some intellectual property to use exosomes to deliver RNA to other cells. Those RNAs are expected to then change the behavior of their cell recipients, Williams said.

“Basically, what Codiak is doing is harnessing a natural mechanism to deliver macro molecules between each cell,” Williams told BioSpace during a one-on-one interview last week.

Codiak is a startup spun out of Flagship Ventures, which has been busy incubating biotech companies over the past few years, including recently launched Evelo Therapeutics, which is looking to develop microbiome therapies for the treatment of cancer. Additionally, Flagship Ventures has launched several biotech and pharmaceutical companies, including Seres Therapeutics, Pronutria Biosciences and ModeRNA Therapeutics. Other backers for Codiak include ARCH Venture Partners, Fidelity Management and Research Company, the Alaska Permanent Fund and Alexandria Venture Investments.

In the interview with BioSpace, Williams said he decided to leave his position at Biogen after he learned about the science of exosomes being conducted at during Codiak’s incubator-phase at Flagship Ventures.

“The more I learned, the more compelling of a story it became,” Williams told BioSpace. “It’s an area of biology that’s exploded in the last four or five years. You can see that in the number of publications about this.”

When it comes to the potential for treatment of pancreatic cancer, Williams said Codiak’s team has derived a protein for pancreatic cancer. Part of the diagnostic treatment the company is hoping to develop with its exosome technologies is an early treatment for that particular cancer, which has a mortality rate of approximately 75 percent. That would have the potential to increase survivability for those patients since most diagnoses happen when the cancer has progressed, Williams said.

Now that Codiak has emerged from its venture-Labs stealth-mode, Williams said top priorities will be moving his small team into lab and office space in Cambridge. Once moved into their new space, Williams said Codiak will begin to search for additional team members and will begin developing both a therapeutic and diagnostic test. Codiak has three full-time employees currently.

When he left Biogen, Williams said he took about two weeks’ vacation, then dove into work at Codiak. “I jumped right in pretty quickly,” Williams said. “It’s just a terrific opportunity in an exciting new area of biology. It’s just a great time right now.”

Before his four-year stint with Biogen, Williams served as CEO of ZymoGenetics, Inc. until that company was acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb Company for $985 million. Previously, he held leadership positions within the biotechnology industry, serving as chief scientific officer and executive vice president of research and development at Seattle Genetics, Inc. , and senior vice president and Washington site leader at Amgen Williams also served in a series of scientific and senior leadership positions for more than a decade at Immunex Corp. .

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