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How Incyte Reached the 'Cutting Edge' of Cancer Research

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“You don’t move a tree every five years,” Hervé Hoppenot, chief executive officer of Incyte, says passionately. “It won’t grow to be big and strong.”

This same philosophy has become engrained in all facets of the Wilmington-based biopharmaceutical company, as its roots grow deep in the state and its blossoms continue to bloom for the foreseeable future.

“You need stability to be successful in this business,” Hoppenot stresses. “You want your team to stay together for a long time.”

With all the recent turmoil in the pharmaceutical industry, Incyte looks to be a rock of stability in the state, a place it has called its home for over 15 years.

Born in California in 1991, Incyte initially focused on gene discovery. The story changed at the turn of the century, though, when Bristol-Myers Squibb acquired DuPont Pharmaceuticals in a multibillion-dollar deal that made national headlines.

Sensing an opportunity, Incyte moved to Delaware in 2002, and a core group of researchers from DuPont joined the just-relocated company. (It even leased space at DuPont’s Experimental Station at first.) With the influx of fresh staff, Incyte shifted from genomics to biopharmaceutical research and development.

As the startup transitioned to an area powerhouse, thanks in large part to its first drug receiving Food and Drug Administration approval in 2011, Incyte moved again in 2014 to its present 191,000-square-foot location—the site of the former Wanamaker department store in Wilmington.

In October, Incyte wrapped up construction on a new 154,000-square-foot building adjacent to its current space, nearly doubling the size of its international headquarters. The company now has about 800 employees in Delaware and another 300 in 10 European countries and Japan.

Hoppenot says the state’s rich history in the pharmaceutical industry, strong talent pool and small, well-connected size make it a perfect match for the thriving company, which has its sights set on the next decade—and beyond.

“We’re part of Delaware,” he says, “and we’re here to stay.”

Taking the long view

Advances in medicine can’t be looked at on a quarter-to-quarter basis, Hoppenot says. From the initial research to a drug being available at the neighborhood pharmacy can take years, sometimes over a decade.

“Few people fully understand how much patience it takes to discover a new drug,” he says. “It’s a marathon.”

Take, for example, Incyte’s first medication to come to market. The research and development team spent 12 years working on Jakafi (known generically as ruxolitinib) until it got the go-ahead from the FDA in November 2011 to treat myelofibrosis, a rare blood cancer that had limited treatment options. Three years later, the FDA approved Jakafi for patients with polycythemia vera, a second type of rare blood cancer. It was the first—and remains the only—drug approved for these two conditions.

Incyte also acquired the rights from ARIAD Pharmaceuticals in 2016 to develop and commercialize Iclusig (generically ponatinib) in Europe. This medication treats a rare form of leukemia, building on the company’s track record of tackling so-called “orphan diseases.”

Delivering cancer drugs that often lack widespread research and funding allowed Incyte to surpass $1 billion in revenue in 2016, the first time it ever hit such a monumental number. Hoppenot says the company will continue to use revenue to reinvest in its portfolio and position Incyte for long-term success.

“It’s very clear that research is the most important part of what we do in this industry,” he says. “Frankly, some other companies have gone away from that.”

With 17 of its medicines currently in clinical trials, Incyte’s research team of chemists, biologists and physicians work on products that might not be available until 2030—if at all, he says. Some might fizzle upon further study and scrutiny, but with good luck, four of them could be out within the next five years.

The most promising for near-term approval include drugs for lymphoma; bile duct and bladder cancer; and graft-versus-host disease, where the body attacks itself during bone marrow transplantation.

“We’re dedicated to cancer research and come at it from immunology and inflammation angles,” Hoppenot explains. “We look at cancer as a disease that now could be potentially treated with strategies around the immune system. We’re at the cutting edge of this new science of cancer treatment.”

Hoppenot believes the company that he has led since 2014 stands at the forefront of scientific discovery, but he fully acknowledges, “we can’t invent everything that needs to be invented.”

With this self-awareness in mind, Incyte actively explores short-term partnerships with compatible companies for licensing, development and commercialization agreements. Incyte has inked deals with industry giants like Eli Lilly and Novartis to generate revenue and expand its geographic reach and technological base.

“The practice of medicine will be transformed over the next decade or so, and we know there will be very important mechanisms of cancer medicines that will come from other companies,” he says. “We’re paving the way for people to realize (that collaboration) is feasible.”

A close eye on the future

Incyte started with 68 employees when it planted seeds in Delaware in 2002. Fifty-six of these original staffers remain on the team.

“I’m very proud of this,” Hoppenot says. “The fact that we retained so many people from the beginning is proof of how well it can go if we do things right.”

Incyte now boasts an additional thousand-plus employees. This rapid expansion caught Hoppenot and other members of the leadership team a bit by surprise. Yet he knows the company must be careful about the future.

It will adjust hiring plans based on business prospects, Hoppenot says. So, when and if any drugs in the pipeline receive FDA approval, he anticipates more employees needed in manufacturing, regulatory and medical positions to help with the launch.

Of course, nothing is certain.

“Our business has highs and lows,” Hoppenot says.

He admits it can be frustrating at times. “Sometimes, it’s three steps forward and two steps back. It’s not a linear process.”

Fortunately, good days outweigh bad, especially when considering the stakes.

“If we discover a new drug, it’s not just for Delaware—it’s for the world,” Hoppenot says. “Then you have a global transformation of the practice of medicine coming from what you do.”

In fact, he believes a cure for cancer will come in our lifetime.

“That’s the vision,” Hoppenot says. “We’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. In 10 to 15 years, Incyte and other companies will be part of a complete transformation of the treatment of this disease, like what happened with HIV 20 years ago.

“We understand what makes cancer cancer, and it’s opening up new opportunities that didn’t exist just a few years ago. That’s what we’re part of.”

 

MAKING COMMUNITY OUTREACH A PRIORITY

Most people don’t associate charity with the pharmaceutical industry. Incyte wants to change that.

“Working with the community to make Delaware a better place is extremely important to us,” Hoppenot says.

In 2016, the company launched the Incyte Charitable Giving Foundation, says Paula Swain, executive vice president of human resources, who chairs the philanthropic effort. The company allocates $500,000 each year for general operating and program support to organizations that offer services and resources to help cancer patients and their families cope with the disease.

“With so many companies leaving the state, there seemed to be a large void with charitable organizations,” she says. “We kept hearing from the community about how difficult it was to get funding. We mandate that this money stays in Delaware.”

The company also provides employees with paid time off to volunteer at a nonprofit of their choosing, and it recently started a partnership with the Cancer Support Community Delaware. Incyte established a special fund that yields $100,000 a year for five years to assist cancer patients across the state with short-term needs, such as paying rent and covering medication copays.

“Most new cancer drug discoveries have occurred in the United States, but access to cancer care has become more problematic here compared to other countries,” Hoppenot says. “We know we can’t solve all the world’s problems, but we can help the people of Delaware through these efforts.”

 

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