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Company Founded by Cancer-Fighting Chemist Sold for $21 Billion

Company Founded by Cancer-Fighting Chemist Sold for $21 Billion

Jonathan Sessler has battled cancer as a patient, a researcher and an entrepreneur. His lifelong fight met an auspicious milestone this month, when the once-small pharmaceutical research company he co-founded was purchased for $21 billion.

b2ap3_thumbnail_sessler_Still-2.pngPharmacyclics was founded and named in 1991 by Sessler and one of the doctors who helped treat him for Hodgkin's lymphoma, Richard Miller. The company's aim was advancing molecules Sessler had engineered in his University of Texas at Austin laboratory to target cancer. Although the company's first effort at drug development did not receive FDA approval, Pharmacyclics acquired another molecule while Miller and Sessler were with the company that went on, within the decade, to be developed into Imbruvica, a drug now used in fighting certain types of blood cancer. Many at Pharmacyclics, now led by Bob Duggan, are to be credited for what Sessler calls "spectacular end-game success" this month, when AbbVie purchased Pharmacyclics.

"New ideas start in universities, where we can take intellectual risks, but moving from something promising in a test tube to something that's helping patients requires more," said Brent Iverson, Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies and a fellow chemist. "Tremendous effort and commercial investment go into that process, and Dr. Sessler, as a cancer survivor himself, did everything he needed to do to move beyond simply a 'promising result.' The actions he took led to a brand new molecule that's now helping people."

Jonathan Sessler, Rowland Petitt Centennial Professor of ChemistryLast year, Forbes magazine profiled what it characterized as the "wild" journey from Sessler's initial research to the eventual sale of a drug that Pharmacyclics developed after he and the company had parted ways. The magazine concluded that impactful new drugs arrive to market after following complex and often difficult trajectories.

"The long road to discovery doesn't happen without good luck, a lot of hard work and many players," Sessler said. "That's how a $21 billion company had its humble origins at UT Austin."

Sessler, who defeated cancer twice as a patient, says in his professional capacity he hasn't gone his last round against the disease. The chemist now is leading a research team toward the development of a new compound that would pair Sessler's innovation—texaphyrins, a class of experimental drugs that target tumors and were named to reflect their Texas origins—with the FDA-approved drug oxaliplatin. The pairing has shown promise against ovarian cancer, which kills more than 14,000 women a year, according to the American Cancer Society. With new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, Sessler and his research team are working to advance the compound to a stage where it is ready for human drug trials, the precursor to FDA approval.

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Comments 4

 
Guest - Brad on Tuesday, 24 March 2015 11:39

Wow- congrats to Dr Seesler- he was my organic chemistry professor back in 1997- loved him. Still remember the swig of some alcohol during class as we studied the alcohol functional group. I do remember his battle with cancer and glad to see that he has beat it and used that research to help others and to form a company of that size. Congrats!

Wow- congrats to Dr Seesler- he was my organic chemistry professor back in 1997- loved him. Still remember the swig of some alcohol during class as we studied the alcohol functional group. I do remember his battle with cancer and glad to see that he has beat it and used that research to help others and to form a company of that size. Congrats!
Guest - Nimra Baksh on Sunday, 29 March 2015 15:09

Congratulations to Dr. Sessler. I was in his organic chemistry class in 2013 and thoroughly enjoyed the quirkiness and wit with which he gave his lectures at 9 in the mornings. Always refreshing! I wish him luck with his further endeavors to help us fight this fatal enemy.

Congratulations to Dr. Sessler. I was in his organic chemistry class in 2013 and thoroughly enjoyed the quirkiness and wit with which he gave his lectures at 9 in the mornings. Always refreshing! I wish him luck with his further endeavors to help us fight this fatal enemy.
Guest - Kirstin on Thursday, 02 April 2015 11:29

Wow - great to hear. I was an undergrad way back in the 90s and remembered hearing about this work. It's great to see it's making a strong impact.

Wow - great to hear. I was an undergrad way back in the 90s and remembered hearing about this work. It's great to see it's making a strong impact.
Guest - Richard on Thursday, 02 April 2015 15:40

What's to get excited about? Cancer drugs that sold for $5000 per month back in 2008 now cost $120,000 per month. My sister in law is dying from cancer ... she can't afford to live. So what's all the congrats for, 99.9% of us will never see these drugs save our lives. I guess I do have to congratulate the researchers who beat the system for free and made millions on top of it.

What's to get excited about? Cancer drugs that sold for $5000 per month back in 2008 now cost $120,000 per month. My sister in law is dying from cancer ... she can't afford to live. So what's all the congrats for, 99.9% of us will never see these drugs save our lives. I guess I do have to congratulate the researchers who beat the system for free and made millions on top of it.
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