As a leader in the pharmaceutical drug industry for 46 years, Jeff Yordon, ’70, is using some powerful medicine to fight the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. His prescription: teamwork and harnessing the power of relationships. The combination is proving very effective.
“To win this, we need each other,” he said.
Yordon’s approach is based on a long track record of success on the front lines in the war against life-threatening disease. During his five-decade career, he has won numerous battles and created billions of dollars of value for investors and employees. Since 2015, he has served as the chief operating officer of global biopharmaceutical company Athenex, Inc., with the mission to improve the lives of cancer patients by creating more active and tolerable treatments.
The seasoned executive has seen a lot over the years, but as he wraps up his 10th conference call of the day in his Chicago home office, Yordon says he’s never seen anything quite like the current crisis.
“The healthcare professionals out there helping us fight this thing don’t have what they need,” he said, referencing the national shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). “Sourcing product is our main focus right now. We will do everything in our power to get these supplies in healthcare workers’ hands.”
That’s a tall order considering the well-documented scarcity of PPE. That’s where Yordon’s network of partners comes in.
Over the course of his career, Yordon has built lasting partnerships with leaders in business, industry and government around the world. Today, those partners are key in helping the Athenex team provide desperately needed PPE for medical workers in hospitals across the country.
The equipment Yordon’s team has offered clinicians includes COVID-19 fortitude and antibody testing kits, ventilators, KN95 face masks, N95 masks, non-surgical masks, face shields, goggles, and sterile isolation gowns. These products come from manufacturers around the world, mostly in China and India.
In addition to providing equipment and supplies, Athenex has also been manufacturing several drugs that are key in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Yordon explains, as the demand far outweighs supply, “antibiotics are a matter of life and death right now.”
The fact that so much of the company’s production takes place in Italy, China and India also presents challenges including, for example, production lockdowns in India. Athenex is one of the major providers of azithromycin injection in the U.S. and, along with its partner in India, the company is trying desperately to keep up with demand.
For people with unrelated medical issues, Athenex has also been helping with the ability for them to take life-saving treatments in their own homes. Yordon says Athenex has several innovative drugs in the pipeline—one of which promises to allow cancer patients to take their chemotherapy in pill form so they would not need to visit a hospital or clinic—a convenience in the best of times and potentially life-saving during a pandemic.
Regarding those drugs, Yordon explains that they inhibit what’s called a permeability glycoprotein, or “P-gp pump” which he said is a protein of the cell membrane that pumps foreign substances out of cells.
He explains, “If you were to eat hot wings tainted with poison, your P-gp pump would kick in and your body would reject and expel the poison by vomiting, etc. Similarly, if a cancer patient were to ingest chemotherapy orally, his or her body would reject all the chemicals before they could fight the cancer. This is why chemo must be administered intravenously. Our oral absorption technology would temporarily turn the P-gp pump off, allowing the patient to take chemotherapy in pill form from the comfort and safety of home.”
An additional benefit of this medication is that it appears to cause substantially less neuropathy (nerve damage that never goes away), and the data would indicate that patients can stay on the medication much longer than the injectable doses. It also appears to prolong life.
The drug has completed Phase 3 clinical studies and the new drug application submission will take place in May. “We anticipate the drug will be approved early next year, and we will launch the product initially for metastatic breast cancer,” Yordon said.
The company has also developed and submitted a new drug application for Tirbanibulin, an ointment that has shown promising results in actinic keratosis, or AK, a pre-cancerous skin lesion. AK is a common disease that affects more than 55 million patients in the United States. If left untreated, 10 to 15 percent of AK lesions will develop into skin cancers. Currently, available treatments cause severe skin reactions. Tirbanibulin ointment is far less damaging to hair and skin cells. This drug will be approved by the FDA in early 2021, and Athenex and its partner Almirall will launch it then.
The alumnus is quick to attribute much of his success to the education he received at NIU.
Yordon is proud of his fellow Huskies for their perseverance during this time and is especially proud of the strong, and decisive leadership of NIU President Lisa C. Freeman. “She is giving her all to protect the Huskie family,” he said. “We are all very grateful for that.”
Yordon has been a passionate investor of both time and money in NIU over the years. His family name graces the Yordon Center, a state-of-the-art athletics facility that serves hundreds of athletes from all 17 athletic programs on campus; he is immediate past chairman of the NIU Foundation Board; and is a regular guest lecturer in classes.
Yordon’s message to students has centered on the value of building relationships, emphasizing the value of partnerships built on trust and mutual respect. Those partnerships have served him well, a fact he regularly shares with students.
Not only have his partners been instrumental in helping save lives through pharmaceutical solutions—they have been helping in today’s crisis in ways we may not have imagined before.
After all, “relationships are what’s most important in life,” Yordon said.
Never has he had a chance to illustrate the value of that lesson more vividly than today.