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

March 16, 2015 • by Christine Sinatra

Jonathon Sessler's Pharmacyclics company aided in advancing molecules to target cancer and was recently bought by AbbVie.

Jonathan Sessler, in suit and tie, smiles and stands before white board with notes

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.

Pharmacyclics 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."

Last 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.