RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Dani Bolognesi stepped down as chief executive officer of Trimeris on Thursday, and with his decision a part of the Triangle’s cutting-edge history in drug development closed.

Not that the good doctor is retiring. He remains at Trimeris as chief scientific officer and as vice chairman of the board. Steve Skolsky, a former executive at GSK and a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill, takes over.

However, Bolognesi will be missed since he’s a good guy CEO – a man who first and foremost was a scientist, someone helping to bring the world a needed drug to combat the deadly killer AIDS.

He once thanked a reporter for writing a story about Trimeris. The reporter asked why a firm making such an important discovery could be hammered almost senseless by Wall Street analysts who seemed to have little regard for the good it was accomplishing. Profits keep companies in business and help fund R&D, but isn’t saving lives important, too?

I was particularly struck recently when Bolognesi, who comes across as a folksy guy in conference calls and interviews, delivered a state-of-Trimeris speech during an earnings update.

The briefing was going reasonably well for Bolognesi. He had just described the company’s efforts, along with partner Roche, to jumpstart sales of the AIDS drug Fuzeon, including trained nurses and an outreach program designed to offer HIV sufferers help in mastering its injection.

As the question-and-answer part of the session opened, an analyst came on line and praised “Dani” for the company’s efforts.

For a moment, anyone listening would not have known that Trimeris stock had suffered dramatically under the weight of Fuzeon’s slow sales. But the comments seemed sincere. I asked a Trimeris executive later about the warmness of the analyst’s comments, given that Trimeris and Roche have both taken plenty of hits from the stock gurus since Fuzeon was greeted with such fanfare when approved by the FDA.

The exec remarked that getting to know analysts on a personal basis was not uncommon. Many CEOs and others at the C-level at public companies go on “road shows” or address conferences or talk to the Wall Street crews about the good, the bad — and the ugly.

Fighting the AIDS war

Bolognesi steps aside as CEO with the knowledge that he has been a good soldier in the fight against AIDS for more than 30 years. Trimeris hit a peak when Fuzeon won FDA approval in March of last year. Its cost ($20,000), complex structure and method of delivery (needle) have limited sales below Street expectations. But the fact remains that Fuzeon does work.

I had a chance to talk with Bolognesi last fall for Metro Magazine of Raleigh. We had picked him as one of the magazine’s top people of the year, and Bolognesi recalled the AIDS battle with great pride.

“It’s a feeling that is indescribable because of what the patients are up against and their response to Fuzeon,” Bolognesi said. “We now have a large number of patient testimonials that indicate in no uncertain terms that without this drug they would be in a much different situation.”

Research done by Bolognesi and Dr. Tom Matthews, Trimeris’ other co-founder, when they were at Duke led to Fuzeon, which was first called T-20. It is a new kind of drug, a fusion inhibitor. They determined that part of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, could be used to prevent viral reproduction through viral fusion.

“Tom came racing into my office to tell me about the discovery,” Bolognesi recalled. “He didn’t do that very often. I saw that glint in his eye that said ‘I really think we’ve got something here.’ “

The two had been involved in viral research for years and had no intention of starting a company, Bolognesi said. But they were approached by investors to help launch Trimeris in 1993. It went public in 1997, but neither of the founders joined the company as full-time employees until 1999. Bolognesi was named CEO, and Matthews was named chief science officer as T-20 advanced through clinical trials.

The biggest moment

“I will never forget the day we got the envelope with the results from the Phase III trial,” Bolognesi said in the Metro interview. “We knew Fuzeon had done well, but to see the data – certainly data is what drives approval. To me, that was a bigger day than when the FDA approved it.”

He also stressed confidence in Fuzeon as a treatment. “If we were out there with a drug that had marginal efficacy or was just a little bit better, then we would not have a good scenario,” he explained. “But that’s not the case. This drug is a lot better. — Now it’s the issue of, OK, how do we convince folks to take an injection as opposed to pills.”

As chief science officer, Bolognesi can turn his attention to other discoveries.

“To make a significant difference in a patient’s life, and we have a drug that has done that,” he said when I asked him what he considered his greatest achievement to date. The scientist and researcher in him also remained quite strong. He said he wanted to take the viral research done for Fuzeon and develop a “new paradigm” in treatment that will defeat viruses despite the ability to mutate.

“We’d like to be a player in that,” Bolognesi said enthusiastically.

Good luck, doc.

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire and senior editor of Metro Magazine.