Biotech icon Max Wallace reflects on distinguished career, amazing science – and Durham’s transformation

March 2, 2018

By Allan Maurer, WRAL TechWire

RALEIGH – The CED is like the bar scene in the original Star Wars movie, Max Wallace, a well-known Triangle serial entrepreneur said as he received the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award at its Life Sciences Conference Wednesday. As an entrepreneur you feel alone and like an alien, he explained, then you come to the CED and discover you are not alone among all these other aliens.

Wallace joined Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure (ABC2) as CEO 10 years ago after a brief semi-retirement. Wallace previously served as CEO of TheraLogics, an anti-cancer biopharmaceutical company based on technology developed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Prior to TheraLogics, he helped found and develop a number of other notable biotech companies, including Trimeris, Sphinx Pharmaceuticals Corporation (now part of Eli Lilly & Company), SARCO (now part of PPD/Pharmaco), and Cogent Neuroscience, which closed in 2002. 

In an exclusive interview with WRAL Techwire, Wallace said he originally thought he would join ABC2, backed by the Case family, for a year, but found the work compelling.

Dan Case, he noted, “was at the top of his career in his 40s and “destined to do miraculous things.” At the time of his death, Case, an investment banker, was chair of J.P. Morgan H&Q, formerly Hambrecht & Quist. The clients he advised were, the New York Times said in his obituary, “a veritable who’s who of Silicon Valley,” and included Apple Computer, Genentech, Adobe, and Netscape.

Then one day called his wife from his car and said he needed a doctor because he couldn’t find his words, and like many brain cancer victims, died from the disease not long afterward at age 44. Dan and his brother Steve Case, who founded AOL, started ABC2 through the Case Foundation. “They wanted to take an entrepreneurial approach to attacking the problem and recruited me,” Wallace said.

AMAZING CHANGES IN DURHAM

Wallace said it has been interesting to watch the changes in the Triangle and particularly Durham over the last decade. “We used to be so dependent, spiritually and in other ways on Burroughs Welcome and Glaxo, and that has diminished. It has created a more robust entrepreneurial climate. The Biotechnology Center and others spent a lot of time building it. People felt the need and saw the opportunity to do things.”

When he started Cogent, he recalled, the Liggett Myers building downtown was one of the few lab facilities available. “Now, right across the street, BioLabs offers incredible launch-capable lab space.”

While few people once lived in downtown Durham or wanted to, that’s changed. “Now so many people want to live there,” Wallace said. It reminds Wallace of Richard Florida’s “creative class” idea.

When Wallace was involved in Durham community projects focused on the arts and venues such as the Carolina Theatre back in the 1980s, people thought “we were wasting our time,” he said.

The transformation “started with restaurants, which are entrepreneurial businesses. The arts were there and DPAC [Durham Performing Arts Center] was a big help. It took a long time for the engine to catch, but it’s caught now.”

He pointed out that you can buy a downtown Durham Penthouse apartment today for about $2 million. “It’s amazing to me,” Wallace said.

ADVANCES MAY MAKE CANCER A CHRONIC DISEASE

Discussing his work with ABC2, Wallace said he found it “interesting working in a nichey cancer space, but the growth in IT has made it less nichey. The ability to analyze big data sets with tools such as IBM’s Watson and advances in genomics “lets us in a small cancer space benefit from all the work done in the big cancer space and harvest the benefit of that research.”

That means “we have stopped looking at it as a disease of a particular organ and instead see it as one of this particular molecular profile.” Brain cancer has some molecular similarity to some breast cancers, for instance. “So we may be able to use some of the same drugs used to treat it.”

It also means that “Our ability to store this really large amount of data has turned some of the research into a computer problem. Some researcher I never heard of in some part of the world I don’t know exists may access that and cure brain cancer. I think we are going to pick up the pace on how these things are being approached.”

We see the same thing happening in cancer research now that happened with HIV, Wallace pointed out.

“When I was with Trimeris, HIV had a terrible prognosis. Now, if you take your medicine, it’s a chronic disease. You see the same thing happening in cancer. We are learning to turn up the volume knob on immunotherapy and turn down rejection,” for instance.

Treating cancer will become more like the way HIV is treated now, he explained. “No one drug can control an adaptive system. It’s like whack a mole, you have to hit it in various places and cut off the disease escape path.”

BE BRIEF, BE FUNNY, BE GONE

It’s interesting to have seen research go from the “Wright Brothers stage” to rocket science, he added.

“I’m 66 and I want to live long enough to see all come to the fore.”

ABC2 employs 5.5 people, one in Boston, Wallace in the RTP, and 3.5 in Washington, DC. What’s half a person, we asked.

One of the non-profit’s employees is a woman in DC who lost her sister to brain cancer and works part time with the company. “She started the Race for Hope event, the largest brain cancer fund-raising event in the world,” said Wallace. “It’s like Woodstock for brain cancer and brings together 10,000 people.”

ABC2 benefits from some of the work Wallace and scientist Don Lo developed at Cogent, using fresh brain tissue to test all available treatments. Eventually, that could mean a patient could come out of surgery with further treatment mapped out.

Accepting the CED Lifetime Achievement award, Wallace said his partner at ABC2, David Sandak, suggested he “be brief, be funny, and be gone.” He followed that advice.