From Isis Pharma to Ionis
Isis Pharmaceuticals has changed its name to Ionis Pharmaceuticals, the Carlsbad biotech company announced Friday. With the new name — free of any similarities to the widely used acronym for the Islamic State terrorist group, comes a new stock ticker — IONS.
That ticker goes into effect when trading opens on Dec. 22. The company is also getting a new website: www.ionispharma.com.
But it wasn’t just the unsavory association that caused Isis to become Ionis, (pronounced “eye-OH-nis”) said Stanley T. Crooke, the company’s chairman and chief executive. It was the potential problems the confusion could cause for Isis employees.
“It was on my mind,” Crooke said. “That’s the thing that really tipped me over to the decision to do it. Why expose any of the people in our company to any unnecessary difficulty, particularly when traveling or going to their neighbor’s house? Why have them be distracted by that?”
With that symbolic name change, the company hopes to put behind it a controversy it had no part in creating.
Isis the company was founded in 1989, long before the Islamic State. The name ultimately derived from Isis, the ancient Egyptian goddess of magic and healing, considered appropriate for a pharmaceutical company.
But people unfamiliar with these facts, or who simply didn’t like the coincidence that an English-language acronym for a terrorist group was the same as the company’s name, forced the change.
With that done, Crooke said Isis can get back to full-time attention to the drugs in development, especially those getting close to approval.
“What made sense is, if we were going to do it, let’s do it now, and get it behind us” Crooke said. “I firmly believe that Isis the terrorist group will come to be history at some point — but not this year. We’re a big, complicated story to begin with. I don’t want to spend time on the name, when I can focus on the three drugs in Phase 3, the technology and the pipeline and so on.”
That pipeline contains dozens of medicines for severe or rare diseases such as various cancers, diabetes, spinal muscular atrophy and cardiovascular diseases. The Phase 3 drugs are nusinersen, for spinal muscular atrophy; volanesorsen, for high triglycerides; and IONIS-TTRRx, for TTR cardiomyopathy amyloidosis.
These drugs work through the antisense technology pioneered by Ionis. This technology blocks diseases at the genetic level, by blocking or changing the production of proteins.
Antisense uses small RNA molecules designed to bind to and inactivate complementary sequences of messenger RNA,which carries instructions for making proteins from DNA out into the cell.
Only a few drugs developed by Isis have been approved for sale. The most important is Kynamro, a cardiovascular drug for those with a genetic disease that causes extremely high levels of cholesterol. Approved in January 2013, Kynamro is sold by the company’s partner Genzyme, a unit of Sanofi.
With many more drugs in clinical development, the company would rather have the news be about those drugs than an unrelated controversy, Crooke said.
The company made the right decision, said biotech watcher John McCamant, editor of the Berkeley-based Medical Technology Stock Letter.
“It was handled perfectly,” said McCamant, who has long followed the company and is a fan of its drug development portfolio.
“They just got caught (in the wave of bad publicity,” McCamant said. After the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks, the company had to act.
“I think they made the right decision at the right time,” he said.
Isis’ name problem first surfaced about two years ago, Crooke said.
“I was on Mad Money when (Jim) Cramer asked me (about a name change) and I said no,” Crooke said. Since then, numerous discussions have been held, and the focus on a name change became intense over the last few months.
Plenty of outsiders offered advice to Isis about a new name, including companies with services to sell, Crooke said. But Isis decided to select a new name on its own. Employees offered various suggestions, and perhaps 10 to 15 names made it all the way to him for consideration.
Eventually, opinion seemed to coalesce around Ionis.
“It seemed to me that everybody came together and decided that Ionis was a nice-sounding, feeling name, as soon as someone hit on it,” Crooke said.
Ionis is an empty vessel name, Crooke said, without any inherent meaning other than what is created by what the company does. Patent and other checks indicated that the name was free of legal problems or unwanted associations.
However, the name has been used in other contexts. Ionis is “a level 53 NPC ,” (non-player character) according to a World of Warcraft fan page. And in another fantasy game, Final Fantasy XI, Ionis is a beneficial magic spell.
There’s also Ionis Education Group based in Paris; the Ionis Art Hotel on the island of Zakynthos, Greece; and Ionis International. provider of Pacific Rim intercultural business training programs.
None of these other uses have meaning in the pharmaceutical industry, nor do they have the Islamic State’s bad reputation.
The name change’s cost was minimal, about $200,000 or less, Crooke said.