It began with a promising cancer drug, the brainchild of a gifted researcher, and grew into an insider trading scandal that ensnared one of America's most successful women. The story of ImClone Systems and its "miracle" cancer drug, Erbitux, is the quintessential business saga of the late 1990s. It's the story of big money and cutting-edgescience, celebrity, greed, and slipshod business practices; the story of biotech hype and hope and every kind of excess.
At the center of it all stands a single, enigmatic figure named Sam Waksal. A brilliant, mercurial, and desperate-to-be-liked entrepreneur, Waksal was addicted to the trappings of wealth and fame that accrued to a darling of the stock market and the overheated atmosphere of biotech IPOs. At the height of his stardom, Waksal hobnobbed with Martha Stewart in New York and Carl Icahn in the Hamptons, hosted parties at his fabulous art-filled loft, and was a fixture in the gossip columns. He promised that Erbitux would "change oncology," and would soon be making $1 billion a year.
But as Waksal partied late into the night, desperate cancer patients languished, waiting for his drug to come to market. When the FDA withheld approval of Erbitux, the charming scientist who had always stayed just one step ahead of bankruptcy panicked and desperately tried to cash in his stock before the bad news hit Wall Street.
Waksal is now in jail, the first of the Enron-era white-collar criminals to be sentenced. Yet his cancer drug has proved more durable than his evanescent profits. Erbitux remains promising, the leading example of a new way to fight cancer, and patients and investors hope it will be available soon.
Since the ImClone scandal first broke, most of the media's attention has focused on CEO Sam Waksal's insider trading and the charges filed against Martha Stewart, a close friend and investor in the pharmaceutical company. Prud'homme, who first reported on ImClone for Vanity Fair, reminds readers of the bigger story, the one that set the financial hijinx in motion: ImClone's failed attempt to bring a potentially groundbreaking cancer medication, Erbitux, to market. This story tells of scientists like John Mendelsohn, who led the research into C225, the antibody at the heart of Erbitux, and patients like Shannon Kellum, a 28-year-old woman diagnosed with colon cancer for whom the medication was a "miracle drug" that added a few years to her life. She was one of the rare lucky ones; Prud'homme's reporting is especially strong when he delves into the seemingly haphazard way in which ImClone distributed C225 for "compassionate use" during the clinical testing period. The FDA's rejection of ImClone's "scientifically incomplete" test data was the immediate motivation for Waksal's crimes, but Prud'homme's portrayal suggests it was completely in character for the reckless social-climbing executive, described by acquaintances as a "pathological liar" who cared more about making money than about curing cancer. Prud'homme ends his compelling account with Waksal's sentencing, and even though he'll inevitably have to update the paperback to wrap up coverage of the Martha Stewart trial, it's well worth reading the book now to appreciate what's really at stake in ImClone's downfall.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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January 20, 2004
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