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Sessler Awarded UT Inventor of the Year

Sessler Awarded UT Inventor of the Year

Professor of chemistry Jonathan Sessler has been named the 2016 UT Inventor of the Year for his prodigious work that contributed to groundbreaking new pharmaceuticals to fight cancer and a successful company, sold last year for billions of dollars.

Photo credit: Marsha Miller

Sessler's work has included a relentless pursuit of new cancer drugs, inspired by a diagnosis of lymphoma, while still a senior in college, and battling the disease once again in graduate school. The young Sessler was treated by then Stanford physician Dr. Richard A. Miller, who gave him an edict which would characterize Sessler's career since: "You're a chemist, find new cancer drugs." 

The Inventor of the Year award is given by UT Austin's Office of Technology Commercialization for outstanding work that produces practicable innovations.

Sessler and Miller would eventually collaborate in establishing the biotech firm Pharmacyclics, which would go on to be sold for $21 billion in 2015.

The firm was created to make the most of Sessler's discovery of a new class of molecules, named texaphyrins (for their origins at UT Austin) which were a larger version of the more common porphyrin structure. These molecules were found to preferentially accumulate in cancer cells, making them the perfect vehicle for cancer-specific medicine. The texaphyrins were large enough to store heavy elements in their core, which cause them to disrupt the self-repair process of cancer cells.

The resulting drugs went through a tumultuous US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process which ultimately failed. However with the use of additional innovative chemical compounds, Pharmacyclics produced Imbruvica, which was approved by the FDA for fighting blood cancer.

Outside of his industrial collaborations, Sessler has also paved the pathways to manifold advances in basic science through his work in organic chemistry. One example of pioneering work is his current research in self-assembling molecular machines. These are multiple-molecule systems which are initially in a non-active state, and can react to outside stimuli, such as light or a chemical, as a signal to assemble into the proper active state. This work has potential to become a promising drug delivery system, and Sessler's team has been working on the triggered release of chemical compounds from "molecular cages." In addition, this work could also be used to create self-healing biological materials.

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