Regeneron Pharmaceuticals is at the front of the pack in the race to develop a coronavirus treatment.
President Donald Trump received an injection of the experimental treatment Friday after he was diagnosed with the coronavirus, the president's doctor said.
The US Food and Drug Administration has not approved the treatment, which is still in clinical trials that started in June.
A description of early data released on September 29 suggested the antibody drug holds promise as an early treatment option. But the ongoing studies will need to confirm that potential.
The drug, called an antibody cocktail, was built in record time, using technology developed over the New York biotech's 32-year history.
Here's the inside story of how Regeneron rose to the drug industry's top ranks, led by founders Leonard Schleifer and George Yancopoulos.
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One of our best hopes for fighting the coronavirus pandemic may have started with a signed napkin in 1988.
On that napkin, a neurologist named Leonard Schleifer scribbled the basics of a deal to start a new biotechnology company. His dinner companion, George Sing, a banker at Merrill Lynch, agreed to give Schleifer a million dollars in funding to launch the business.
Thirty-two years later, that company, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, is a leader in the race to curb the coronavirus pandemic. Its experimental COVID-19 treatment was injected into President Donald Trump, the White House's physician said Friday.
Regeneron began testing its coronavirus drug in people in June. The drug is based on the disease-fighting proteins known as antibodies, and Regeneron quickly developed it using technology it's been honing for more than two decades and previously used to successfully treat Ebola.
A description of early data released on September 29 suggested the antibody drug holds promise as an early treatment option. But ongoing studies will need to confirm that potential.
Regeneron hopes the drug will not just help the sick recover from COVID-19 but can also protect healthy people from getting infected, acting like a short-term vaccine. If the drug works, Regeneron aims to have hundreds of thousands of doses available by the end of 2020.
Producing a successful coronavirus treatment in under a year would be the latest validation of the unusual approach that Regeneron and its executives have taken to the biotech industry. Over the past three decades, the biotech's cofounders have pushed Regeneron into the drug industry's top ranks, developing seven approved medicines, employing more than 8,000 workers, and making themselves billionaires.
They've also taken a long-term mindset and spent decades building their own research tools, a marked contrast to rivals that quickly get gobbled up by giant pharma suitors.
"From the very beginning, as long we could support it financially, we were intent on being very broad-minded about our work and our technology development," said Neil Stahl, Regeneron's executive vice president of research and development in a July interview. "Because you never really know exactly where the big successes are going to come from."
Read more: Customized drugs designed to prevent and treat the coronavirus are storming into the clinic. Here are the top drugmakers crafting antibody treatments, which are set to play a key role in halting the pandemic.
'If you're so smart, why do you make so little?'
Schleifer was working as a neurologist in New York City when he got the idea for Regeneron. He wanted to study brain diseases at a basic, genetic level and craft drugs using those findings. The name was a portmanteau of the company's initial goal: regenerating neurons to tackle brain disorders.
After securing his first million dollars, he turned to finding a partner and came across a young biology professor at Columbia University. George Yancopoulos graduated at the top of his class at Columbia and was valedictorian at The Bronx High School of Science, where Neil deGrasse Tyson happened to be a classmate.
The 28-year-old scientist had recently landed a $2.5 million grant to jump-start his own lab. But his father — a Greek immigrant who raised his son in working-class Queens, New York — implored him to look beyond academia. "Exactly how much of that $2.5 million goes into your pocket?" Yancopoulos later recalled his father asking him in Greek. "If you're so smart, why do you make so little?"
That's when Schleifer called. By 1989, Yancopoulos had bailed on Columbia to join Schleifer as Regeneron's chief scientific officer, setting up shop in Tarrytown, New York, about 20 miles north of Manhattan.
Regeneron was also cofounded by Eric Shooter, a Stanford University neuroscientist who served on the biotech's board until 2014.
Regeneron suffers early failure with ALS drugs
From the beginning, the biotech took a different approach to science. While many biotechs are secretive, Regeneron's researchers were encouraged to publish early and often, said Stahl, who joined in 1991. That allowed scientists at the company to build their reputations, while also attracting more young talent.
Its early research helped the company gain some attention and raise $91 million in a 1991 initial public offering.
Dr. Betty Diamond, the director of molecular medicine at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, described Yancopoulos as "an extraordinary guy."
"I think people recognized early on, both in academia, the venture-capital world, and anywhere else, that he's somebody who you put your money on," she told Business Insider in July. "And it's paid in dividends."
Diamond has followed Regeneron's work for decades as a longtime antibody researcher who runs her own lab in New York.
But creating medicines wasn't as easy as they hoped, particularly in aiming to treat neurological disorders like ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Two of its early drug candidates failed to help patients in clinical trials.
The company cold-calls an industry legend, persuading Roy Vagelos to join
The company soon shifted its focus, prodded by an industry legend.
In 1994, Merck CEO Roy Vagelos was looking for his next opportunity, as the drugmaker required executives to retire at 65.