Tragic is as Stupid Does? (or, Kabbalah, Aristotle, Arrested Development, and the return of Sam Waksal)

I was working on my From the Editor column for the Jan/Feb issue of my magazine, and I realized that you guys might dig the one I wrote for the Nov/Dec issue:

In October, I received a couple of press releases about a new outfit called Kadmon Pharmaceuticals. The name was familiar, so I broke out my copy of Gershom Scholem’s Kabbalah, a book detailing Judaism’s mystic tradition. I re-learned that Kadmon — to be precise, Adam Kadmon — means “primordial man,” or “original man”; it’s not just the first person created by God in the book of Genesis, but the primal being, the first emanation of the divine before the universe shatters and becomes the world we know. (As per their interpretation of the Torah and its commentaries. I’m a scholar, not an adherent.)

“Good for them,” I thought. “I suppose the pharma industry could do with a few more Kabbalists.”

Then I noticed the name of the chief executive officer of privately financed Kadmon: Samuel P. Waksal, Ph.D. You may remember him as the former chief exec at ImClone. You may also remember the insider-trading scandal that put him in federal prison for five years and led to Martha Stewart’s imprisonment. And you may remember that I once called him “a great example of man’s capacity for delusion.”

That last bit was my April 2009 response to a New York Magazine article about Mr. Waksal intended to pave the way for his return to NYC society. The article mentioned that, much like Mike Tyson, Dr. Waksal read a lot of books when he was in prison:

He also read. “I reread all the Greeks,” he says, smiling. “All. I read everything. Euripides, and Sophocles, and every other Greek that had ever written. You just have to read Aristotle’s Poetics, and you read what tragedy is — and you look at yourself and think, ‘[. . .], man, this is tragic.’

Back in my brief 2009 editorial postscript, I noted, “No matter how ‘brilliant’ a mind you have, you really need to look inside sometimes.” Right after calling him delusional.

Now that Dr. Waksal’s back in biopharma, I probably need to expand on that statement. See, one of the major points of Aristotle’s Poetics is that character is revealed by action. That means, what we do is who we are.

In 2001, when Dr. Waksal became aware that ImClone’s stock was about to tank because the FDA had rejected the Biologics License Application (BLA) for Erbitux, what action did he undertake and what did it reveal about his character?

He contacted family and friends and told them to dump their shares in the company, before the news got out and wrecked their value. In other words, when faced with a crisis, he chose to defraud those investors who weren’t lucky enough to be family (or the mother of his ex-girlfriend).

In prison a few years later, Dr. W. looked at himself in light of Aristotle and the tragedians, and judged himself a tragic figure. An outside observer might look at those same actions and say, “What a petty and craven human being!”

Apparently, the Securities and Exchange Commission agreed with that outsider’s take, barring Dr. W. from serving as an officer at a publicly held company. Ever.

On the other hand, some investors now feel that he’d be trustworthy with $50 million (or more) in financing. It’s a good thing the last few years have taught us that the smart money isn’t really very smart.

* * *

All of which brings us back to that name: Kadmon. Is Dr. W. implying that his new private equity-backed biotech is somehow going to partake in the macrocosmic vision of that primordial man? That it’s going to play a role in restoring the universe to its perfect state (as per Kabbalah’s goal of Tikkun olam)? Did he embrace this religion in order to deal with life in prison, a la George Bluth’s religious conversion on the (brilliant but canceled) TV show Arrested Development? Is he somehow framing himself as the primordial man, reborn after his stint in the joint? Is he just copying neat-sounding words from Mr. Scholem’s book? (I’d have gone with Zimzum Pharma.)

At press time, Kadmon doesn’t have a website up, so all we have to go on is Dr. Waksal’s quote from a news release:

Kadmon is building a new paradigm for bringing pioneering medicines to market more rapidly and cost effectively. This includes the simultaneous execution of a dual strategy, combining an operating commercial business with novel compounds at various stages of clinical development.

Aha! Apparently, the world can be restored by making sure you have some cash flow while working on drug development. I hope he’s successful in developing some new drugs, but not so successful that he tries to take the company public.

Sure, you can take my sniping as sour grapes. Am I jealous of the high-flying lifestyle, literary salons and SoHo loft that Dr. W once enjoyed and the tens of millions of dollars — if not more — that he banked after Lilly bought ImClone? Heck, yeah!

On the other hand, my only run-ins with the law have involved speeding tickets, and I never put my parents in a position where the feds could threaten to put them in prison if I didn’t cop a plea.