What We Saw At The Revolution

Field Notes from a Visit To Marker Therapeutics, Houston, TX, and the $MRKR Presentations at 2019 ASBMT/TCT, Houston

by KSS and Managing Editor Allan Lee

HOUSTON—-Our site visit to Marker goes famously well. The company’s administrative HQ are in a plain-vanilla but quite nice corporate suite in a highrise on the southwest freeway here.

CEO Peter Hoang (pictured above), with whom we’ve spoken before, is engaging and sincere, and when he saw that we meant business and were really intending to write up the company for a real publication, immediately summoned his top lieutenants. What followed was an hour bloodfeast in leading edge T-cell immunology, including some great teaching about the methodology for entraining the cells ex-vivo. Hoang has stellar qualities, equally conversant on science, the markets, financing, their manufacturing plans; he comes across as a guy who politely knows he’s got the sleekest and biggest jet on the tarmac, the one that will fly farthest and most reliably, and is appropriately self-assured he’s the dude to get it to its destination. I find him authentic, pure, visionary, realistic, very capable of integrity and sincerity without lacking charisma. Hoang leans in when he talks to you, is quick to clasp your hand, and exudes open body language. Hoang’s wife Tsvetelina, whom we met, is a PhD immunologist trained at Hopkins and expert on tumor cell killing by CD8 cells, and is a scientific asset (VP of R&D) at Marker. She’s long worked with James Allison, PhD, Nobel laureate, checkpoint discoverer, Marker advisor and MD Anderson professor. Hoang and Tsvetelina met as Yale undergraduates. Hoang’s list of industry positions, including at MD Anderson and Bellicum ($BLCM), is extensive and impressive. Hoang is an MBA.

We were thrilled to meet $MRKR Chief Development Officer Juan Vera, MD, a surgeon trained in Colombia who became a leading T-cell viral immunology researcher at nearby Baylor College of Medicine. He’s been an extensive collaborator over the years with Celgene ($CELG) and bluebird bio ($BLUE), and invented the G-Rex ex vivo lymphocyte culture and expansion system, about which he taught us extensively.

We’ll be saying a lot more this week about this investment, now a large holding for Dr KSS. On Wednesday, a more extended and technically oriented discussion with Marker people. We’ll then be attending two live presentations by the company at the annual ASBMT/ TCT meeting tonight, at the convention center in Houston.

KSS showed Allan around many of his old haunts, including the endearing Rice Village, which has proliferated a good bit but will never fail to charm. Lamentably, gathering spots Michelangelo and Downing Street are no more. Last night we noshed at the inexpensive but ever-popular Vietnamese cafe Miss Saigon, which moved closer to Montrose after 22 years in Rice Village. The owner seemed to remember me, and she served me what remains the best Vietnamese iced coffee in the US, perhaps the world. Maybe we’ll run by the Pink Palace (a.k.a. UT MD Anderson Cancer Center) tomorrow. Rice Village is adjacent to Rice University. Just a few blocks away across Holcombe is the same plain dry cleaner always staffed by that same sad woman from Portuguese Goa….the one who never once gave me back a shirt with cracked buttons and always seemed to be the one person in town that I could be sure was glad to see me.

Houston’s in a very unusual cold snap, with rain, for February. Ask anyone about what weather is like in Houston and the standard refrain has always been, Well there’s February and then the rest of the year. The rest of the year is 100/100 (degrees and percent humidity) whilst February is generally heaven on earth……mid sixties, with dry air and bright skies.


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