Frank Thoughts: The Old Burial Ground
Dave Canal
December 09, 2019

It was a dreary fall day as I climbed the stone steps to Marblehead’s cemetery, known as “The Old Burial Ground.”  The weather was appropriate.   The cemetery, dated 1638, is situated on a hill overlooking the ocean.  I was curious what historic names might appear on the tombstones.  After all, I live a block from General John Glover’s house.  He is the man in the famous painting ferrying George Washington across the Delaware.  And then of course there is Salem, famed for the witch trials, in an adjacent town.  Two “witches” are buried in the cemetery.

As I walked through the graveyard, I was struck by how many had died at a young age.   At first, I wondered why.  Then it occurred to me … probably infection.    Penicillin wasn’t developed as an antibiotic miracle drug until 1943.  As antibiotics evolved, so did their use which increased bacterial resistance.   While I was aware of this, I was not appreciative of it until I joined Alex. Brown & Sons in the late 1980s.  The firm specialized in bringing entrepreneurial technology companies to market.   Microsoft had been one of them.  In 1990, biotechnology as a business was then about 10 years old.

It was at Alex. Brown & Sons that I was introduced to biochemistry and Alpha-Beta Technology.   The company had a new antibiotic called Betafectin.   Historically, all antibiotics have been proteins.   But Betafectin was a carbohydrate.   If the compound worked in clinical trials, it would be a game changer as no bacterium would have resistance.  It would be like reinventing penicillin.   It wasn’t hard to imagine the potential impact of it in medicine and the stock market.  Phase 1 clinical trial (safety) was a breeze.  Phase 2 (safety and effectiveness) was just wonderful.  Phase 3 (effectiveness) was a failure.

While it had failed, I still regarded the experience as positive. Pete Lawson, Fidelity’s first Magellan Fund manager, had taught me that great change was always the catalyst for investment success.  Thirty years ago I was very aware of the nascent change going on in the pharmaceutical industry.  Synthetic chemistry was giving way to biochemistry.  But there was a problem.  I didn’t know anything about biochemistry and virtually no one else in the investment business did either.  Then one day, I heard a biotech Ph.D. “analyst” trying to explain why one of his stocks had gone down.   I was shocked at his lack of understanding of the stock market.  His ignorance was as great as mine was in his field.

This lack of knowledge led me to contact Dr. David Dressler, the founder of the biochemistry department at Harvard.   As we sat in the faculty club having lunch, I asked if I could audit his lectures.   He then asked if I would manage his stock portfolio.   We raised wine glasses.   I audited three different courses.   A lecture I still remember decades later was on antisense technology.  To David, it was the holy grail of medicine.   Few drugs cure.  Most slow a disease’s progression.  But stop?  No.  Antisense offers that possibility.   For example, if a given protein is in the shape of an S, it can be targeted by creating an oligonucleotide that binds the other way, thus creating an 8.  It’s stopped from expressing itself.   Think cancer.  As antisense drugs are developed (several have been approved by the FDA), they’ll be fewer young headstones at “The Old Burial Ground” or anywhere else. 

-Francis Patrick Boland

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