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Team hopes to make Oklahoma City a pharmaceutical hub

Scott Rollins, president and CEO of pharmaceutical startup Tetherex, hopes a new drug could help make Oklahoma City into a place for bioscience innovation. [Photo provided by Tetherex]

Scott Rollins, president and CEO of pharmaceutical startup Tetherex, hopes a new drug could help make Oklahoma City into a place for bioscience innovation. [Photo provided by Tetherex]

Oklahoma City — The team behind a drug development company that sold for hundreds of millions of dollars hope they have another winner — but say they want to keep it closer to home this time.

Scott Rollins, president and CEO of pharmaceutical startup Tetherex, said the area has enough expertise to complete the process of testing and manufacturing a new drug, though a larger corporate partner would need to handle sales and distribution. The same team sold another company, Selexys, to pharmaceutical giant Novartis in 2016, which will manufacture a drug the Oklahoma City startup developed to treat sickle cell disease.

“We're trying to build something more sustainable” than just developing new drugs and handing them off, he said. “If we could get our hands on more (new drugs), we could keep doing this.”

Potential jobs and ribbon-cuttings still are only dreams at this point, however. Drug development is a grueling process, and most potential medications fail somewhere along the way. Before the Food and Drug Administration will approve a drug, the company developing it must show that it is relatively safe and effective. No drug is totally safe or works for everyone, so scientists at the FDA have to weigh the evidence.

The new compound, with temporary name SelK2, is a monthly injection that could treat Crohn's disease or deep vein thrombosis.

In Crohn's disease, the body attacks the intestines. Deep vein thrombosis involves blood clots, which can become life-threatening if they travel to the lungs.

The drug blocks one receptor on white blood cells, which allows it to “stick” to other cells and attack them, said Rodger McEver, vice president of research at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. His research helped yield the drug, and he has invested money in Tetherex.

In theory, blocking this one receptor should stop the white blood cells from attacking healthy tissue, while still allowing the immune system to work — though trials will have to prove if that's indeed the case, McEver said. Drugs meant to reduce inflammation generally have the unfortunate side effect of leaving patients vulnerable to infection and slow to heal after injury.

“A hundred thousand years ago, we were all running away from wild animals, and we needed a hair trigger for injury and infection,” he said. “Now, maybe we need to dampen that trigger because it can cause disease.”

Because so many drugs fail in clinical trials, large pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to plow too much money into unproven concepts, said Scott Meacham, president and CEO of business-launching group Innovation to Enterprise. Startups fill in the space between labs doing basic research, which the government usually funds, and drugmakers committing to take a product to market, he said.

“Typically, it's up to the private investors to show it's safe and it works,” he said.

If the drug works and the FDA agrees that its trade-offs are acceptable, the rewards could be great. Rollins estimated investors put up about $33 million for earlier startup, Selexys, to test a drug that treats pain caused by sickle cell anemia.

Pharmaceutical giant Novartis bought Selexys for about $665 million in 2016, for a return of about $19 on every $1 invested.

So far, Tetherex has raised more than $20 million to conduct studies, and could raise as much as $50 million, Rollins said. Participants in the studies will receive standard care for their conditions, and half will receive the new drug. Comparing the two groups will show if patients benefit from the drug. Even if all goes well, Rollins estimated it would take five to six years before the drug becomes widely available.

If the drug delivers, it would boost Oklahoma City's profile as a place for bioscience innovation, Meacham said.

“You can hopefully create a group or a nucleus of investors” interested in technology from local companies, he said. “Success begets success.”

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›