Imagine walking into your office every day and seeing someone whose life you saved. That’s what it’s like to work at Seattle Genetics.
In the Bothell company’s lobby, a video featuring people in remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma plays in a continuous loop, patients treated with Seattle Genetic’s signature drug Adcetris.
Those patients also come to company-wide meetings to share their stories.
“One of the first patients who came was signed up for the Peace Corps, he was in the pink of health,” said Dennis Benjamin, the company’s vice president of translational research. “To go into the Peace Corps, you need a physical. So he’s sold all of his stuff, got his plane ticket but then they called him back in.
“And he’s in chemotherapy and when chemotherapy didn’t work his whole life just changed. It was two years of a downward spiral. And then he got Adcetris and he got better.”
More than 26,000 patients have been treated with Adcetris since it was first approved for use in the U.S. in 2011. Many of those survived where other front-line drugs for lymphoma have failed.
This has energized the people who work in the labs at Seattle Genetics at 21823 30th Drive SE, Bothell, tucked in the Canyon Creek Business Park.
“You can probably sense the passion that’s around research in the whole company,” said Travis Biechele, one of Seattle Genetic’s scientists. “People really believe in what we’re doing. I believe in what we’re doing. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here. It’s exciting to come in every day here. I ride my bike here and I get more and more excited as I get here. It’s really fun doing this.”
It’s also profitable.
Seattle Genetics made $450 million in sales last year on Adcetris and the company reported at its most recent quarterly reports that it has $691.7 million in cash without any debt.
Seattle Genetics is the largest biotech company in the Northwest based on market capitalization — the value of a company factoring price of its shares compared with the total number of stocks — as well as revenues and number of employees. And Seattle Genetics is growing both in terms of size and breadth of vision.
In addition to Adcetris, the company is developing 12 new lines of cancer-fighting drugs. To do the research, the company has added hundreds of employees over the past several years.
Seattle Genetics grew from just more than 100 employees 10 years ago to 800 employees this spring.
The company expects to add another 100 this year. To house that many workers, Seattle Genetics is expanding from four buildings at the Canyon Creek Business Park to six, occupying about 350,000 square feet of space.
The company also is adding another 20 workers at a new Switzerland office that will work with the European Medicines Agency, which approves drugs for countries in the European Union.
Adcetris, which comes in vials that patients take in a 30-minute drip into the arm on an outpatient basis, is only approved to be used on Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients who have failed other treatments. The company is now seeking to get the drug approved as a front-line treatment.
“To get a drug approved for patients who have failed other therapies, that’s great but why let them go through really hard therapy and they fail and they have a tough time in life?” company founder Clay Siegall said. “Why don’t you give the best right away?”
If it’s successful, that could cause Adcetris’ sales to explode.
“I expect Seattle Genetics sales to go over $1 billion in sales by 2020,” Siegall said. “That’s what we’ve guided Wall Street to say pending these trials, pending data and there’s a lot of work left to do.”
It’s quite the rise for Siegall, who started off with one other person when he founded Seattle Genetics in 1998.
Siegall, who grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, was in college studying to become a doctor when his father died of brain cancer.
He saw the treatment his father received and felt that there needed to be better medicine. He switched from an “MD to pursuing a PhD.”
“My goal in the world is to treat cancer patients and do better than what we’re doing today with targeted drugs, and I love that I wake up every day and I’m excited about it,” Siegall said. “I’m not just saying that. It’s what I do. I’ve been doing it for 30 years.”
He graduated with his doctoral degree in molecular genetics from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He then went on to do a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Health in Maryland.
Afterward, he was hired by biopharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb in Connecticut. In 1992, the company asked Siegall to move his entire team to Seattle where it had purchased a biotech research firm. Eventually, Bristol-Myers Squibb decided to move out of the Puget Sound area.
Siegall stayed: “I moved to Seattle and I fell in love with the area, this is home for my kids.” He continues to live in Woodway.
In 1997, Siegall started Seattle Genetics in Bothell. He praised Bristol-Myers Squibb, which helped him get started. Siegall’s company grew slowly in its first years. The company made its initial public offering in 2001 and is traded on the Nasdaq Stock Market under the symbol SGEN.
One of the first drugs that the company worked on was Adcetris, which targets lymphoma cells and delivers a payload to kill the cancer. The key is the drug is attracted to a protein called CD30.
“We did not discover CD30,” Siegall said. “It was discovered in Germany. It was discovered and described and that’s it. We noticed it was on lymphoma cells in high density. So we decided we would make a drug that would find CD30, find the target and kill the cell.”
The company went through years of research on Adcetris and then even more time on trials. And there was no guarantee that it would succeed.
“Cancer drugs fail a lot,” Siegall said. “Even with the best research and with the best scientists in the world and then you go into humans and we’re complicated. Sometimes the drugs don’t work as well as you think they would or predict.”
When the blind testing was completed on Adcetris, the scientists at Seattle Genetics were stunned at how successful it was in treating lymphoma patients. The drug was approved for use in the U.S. in 2011.
To celebrate, Seattle Genetics held a company party at the Showbox Theater in Seattle. Benjamin, the company’s VP of translational research, has kept the rubber wristband they gave for people to enter the party.
“Most of what happens in the discovery of research fails,” Benjamin said. “The drugs don’t deliver specifically. They’re not active. They’re not selective. There’s an awful lot of hard work that people put in and some people in this industry can literally go 20 years in their career and not have a drug approved. So it really was a really a special moment. It was fantastic.”
The drug has been approved for use in 64 countries around the world, most recently in Russia and Egypt. And Seattle Genetics is seeking approval in China.
With the success of Adcetris, Seattle Genetics has been able to expand its operations, buy new and better equipment and conduct more research. While none of its new drugs are for brain cancer, Siegall said his company is licensing its research to an outside firm doing study in that area.
As Seattle Genetics grows, the company is helping spur economic development in the south part of the county.
Siegall said he’s happy with being an engine for the local economy although he notes that the true value of the company is in the research, not the manufacture of the drugs.
“I get questioned from lawmakers, senators, Congress people and they ask, ‘Are you going to build manufacturing here?’” Siegall said. “That’s a very Boeing-centric question. We have our headquarters here. We have hundreds and hundreds of people. We’ll hire a company that has a big manufacturing center and 20 people and they’ll make our drug in a month, enough for a year, it won’t move the needle.”
Other biotech companies have come and gone in the Puget Sound region. Immunex was the heavyweight drugmaker of its day in the Seattle area, but it was purchased by Amgen and then the company slowly moved operations from the area. Amgen shut down the last offices in Seattle and Bothell last year.
Icos — the developer of Cialis, the erectile-dysfunction drug featuring the bathtub-sitting couples — was the largest drugmaker in the county until it was bought by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly in 2007.
Eli Lilly then shut down most of the Bothell operations and sold what was left to a Danish company.
Siegall doesn’t see that happening with Seattle Genetics.
Most of the time companies that are bought are looking to be purchased, he said. He and the board of directors believe that Seattle Genetics is on a trajectory where “we think we can build something that the shareholders will be proud of and will be worth their while from an investment standpoint.”
“Our goal is to be an independent, self-sustaining company that’s making the difference in the lives of cancer patients with innovative targeted therapies,” Siegall said. “We’re trying to build as strong a company as we can.”