Getting to Know Dr. James Garner, CEO of Kazia Therapeutics

Kazia Therapeutics CEO

Photo courtesy of Kazia Therapeutics 

BioSpace recently spoke with Dr. James Garner, CEO of Kazia Therapeutics, an oncology company that is focused on the development of cancer drugs. The company is publicly listed both in Australia and on NASDAQ in the U.S. Its lead program, paxalisib, is being developed to treat glioblastoma, the most common and aggressive form of primary brain cancer in adults.

Q: We last spoke in January about Kazia’s business model and the challenge of drugs crossing the blood-brain barrier to treat glioblastoma. Today, I’d like to talk more specifically about you. Let’s start with a simple one: What is your role at Kazia?

A: I'm the Chief Executive Officer at Kazia. That's my job title if you like, but we're a really small company and, like in most small companies, the job involves you to be involved with multiple areas of the business. I might spend a period of time in the morning talking to a clinician about a new clinical study, which is a very scientific, detailed discussion about how to answer a research question. Next, I might converse with an investor about company performance, explaining that their capital is in good hands and the potential for return on investment. In the afternoon, I could review the draft accounts for release to the S.E.C. because this is a listed company. So, it's really a variety of different initiatives. It’s very much a Jack-of-all-trades role, which I think is part of the fun.

Q: How did you choose to work in biopharma?

A: As with most of the best decisions, it was made by accident. I trained as a medical doctor and studied in London at Imperial College. Coming from a medical family (both my parents and one of my grandparents are doctors) there was almost a sort of inevitability that I would go into medicine. I really enjoyed it, and I practiced for a few years in both the UK and Australia. Once you become a physician, medicine takes over your entire life. But I always knew there were other things I was very interested in pursuing. One of those areas was business in general. I took time out, earned an MBA, and worked for a few years at a consulting company. Eventually, I started to put all of these career pieces together and found myself in the drug development industry. That’s where I’ve been ever since.

Q: What experience have you had in the biopharma industry?

A: I’ve been fortunate to gain experience between multinationals and smaller biotech companies in the pharmaceutical industry. I’ve probably spent about 50% of my career in smaller, more biotech-style companies and the other half in large multinational companies. Many professionals prefer life with a big multinational because of the structure and extensive resources. Other professionals like working at smaller organizations. To be honest, I’ve always enjoyed both. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to move back and forth between the two spectrums of the industry.

Q: Kazia is working to develop paxalisib to treat glioblastoma. Are there any other benefits that have come out of this research?

A: Our main focus is a disease called glioblastoma, which is the most common and aggressive form of brain cancer. Both John McCain and Beau Biden passed away from glioblastoma. However, we are also working on other forms of brain cancer. There is a childhood brain cancer called DIPG, or diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma. It’s a horrible rare disease that affects maybe four or five hundred kids a year in the U.S. It typically affects kids between the ages of 4 to 12 years. It is uniformly fatal, with a life expectancy from diagnosis of about 9 to 10 months. Currently, there are no FDA-approved treatments, but we’ve been trying to develop our drug for DIPG in parallel with our glioblastoma work. The FDA recently awarded us a Rare Pediatric Disease Designation for DIPG. This designation helps us in various ways to move the drug forward into that disease.

Q: What is the best part of your work?

A: Actually, there are three aspects. The first is that each day is never the same. My work brings together science and business, and increasingly, IT, human elements, economics, and the social sciences. The second aspect thing is that you tend to work with really interesting people. It’s an incredible privilege to work with people who are at the top of their field. The final aspect is the satisfaction of knowing that if you get it right, and if it all works out, it’s going to make a big difference in people’s lives. Take our work in DIPG. We are pursuing that treatment, not because there is a large economic value in it, but because there’s a bigger value beyond economics. The families of those kids don’t really have a lot of hope right now, and we would be very happy if we could bring hope that didn’t exist previously. I think that was part of what I always enjoyed about medicine as well. In that sense, I’ve never ceased to be a doctor. It’s the same thing, just in a different part of the industry.

Q: Anything I haven’t asked?

A: My parting words. I think it is always important to recognize that drug development is difficult and risky. Sometimes, it can even seem like an insurmountable challenge. However, everything is impossible until somebody succeeds. Here in Australia, a relatively common cause of death for younger people is melanoma or skin cancer because we spend significant time outdoors, and we’ve got no real ozone layer to protect us. It Melanoma used to be a death sentence with no effective treatment. I’ve lost people to melanoma that spread and transitioned to metastatic melanoma. Fortunately, that has changed in the last decade. We have seen a number of new treatments approved that have altered the course of that disease. Now, something that has long filled everybody with dread suddenly seems like it may just be beatable one day. Melanoma is still an incredibly challenging disease but it’s not quite as insurmountable as it once was. Our industry did that: the drug development industry brought forward some great new medicines that made a difference. We haven’t completely cured it, don’t get me wrong, but, it’s made an enormous difference. Many people are alive today who wouldn’t be if it weren’t for the drugs that our industry discovered. It’s a great privilege to be a part of an industry that can do that. I very much hope that our company can bring some kind of similar hope to people with brain cancer.

Please click here for more information on our contributing writer, Gina Hagler.

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