Biologics to double its staff by 2012

Cary firm manages cancer treatment

Staff WriterSeptember 13, 2011 

Biologics, a Cary company that manages cancer treatment for patients, is benefiting from the increasing complexity and risk of treating about 300 identified cancer types.

The health care company expects to double its staff in the coming months as it signs new contracts for overseeing treatment for more cancer patients. The company employed about 70 people in January and expects to grow to 150 employees by mid-2012, many of themoncology nurses and pharmacists, said CEOStuart Frantz.

The company recently announced a major deal with drug maker Genentech to supervise patient use of Zelboraf, a newly approved melanoma drug that costs about $113,000 for a one-year course of treatment. Zelboraf, one of just two new treatments approved in more than a decade for one of the deadliest forms of cancer, is expected to be a blockbuster drug with more than $1 billion in annual sales.

While popular with doctors, Biologics is facing competition from insurance companies, many of which are setting up their own oncology management teams to make sure patients get proper treatment. Cancer specialists are increasingly needed to advise patients as the number of cancer medications - and potentially fatal drug interactions - multiply.

"Most of the regular pharmacies just don't have the expertise to understand the blood counts, the dosing, the drug interactions," said James Vredenburgh, a brain cancer specialist at Duke University Medical Center in Durham who's been referring patients to Biologics since the company was founded in 1994. "It takes missing just one bad drug interaction and the patient can die."

Biologics employs about 100 people today, 85 in Cary and the rest in sales around the country. Biologics specialists advise patients how to take chemotherapy pills and handle side effects, as well as finding financial assistance to pay for the costly medications.

Biologics stocks more than 80 cancer drugs that can be shipped overnight to patients, preventing delays in treatment.

"The drugs are very expensive," said Robert Wehbie, a cancer doctor at Rex Hospital in Raleigh who's been referring patients to Biologics for more than a decade. "Regular pharmacies are not inclined to stock a $10,000 drug unless someone asks for it and then they would have to special-order it."

The company promotes itself to insurers as a cost-cutter and to doctors as a patient-care advocate.

"We put together a personalized care plan for every patient," Frantz said. "If you really take care of the patients you wring out the waste from the system, you avoid hospitalization events, you avoid dehydrations."

In April, Biologics announced a deal with AstraZeneca to be an exclusive oncology manager for the pharmaceutical giant's new thyroid cancer drug, Vandetanib.

Zelboraf is designed for patients with advanced melanoma that can't be treated with surgery. It targets a gene mutation that causes the cancer to spread, and has been shown in clinical trials to slow down the disease.

Zelboraf can have a range of serious side effects, including joint pain, rash, hair loss, warts and cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer that doesn't spread to other parts of the body but causes discolorations.

Because Zelboraf causes severe sensitivity to sunlight, patients are advised to avoid exposure to sunlight by covering their face and hands and using lip balm and sunscreen.

"Those new options mean that melanoma patients have a lot of questions about their care," said Timothy Turnham, executive director of the Melanoma Research Foundation in Washington. He said these novel drugs give rise for a need to "help patients navigate questions quickly and effectively."

john.murawski@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8932

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