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New company to develop drugs for women
May 10, 2008

By Travis E. Poling

The Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research is taking a step toward putting San Antonio on the biomedical industry map by spinning off a company focused on women's health drugs.

Evestra Inc., which will be made up of the entire organic chemistry department of the foundation, already has multiple patents on drugs that could be used to treat several women's health issues.

A birth control drug from Evestra could be on the market within a few years. Another 14 patented drugs could be developed to fight breast cancer and even uterine fibroid tumors that cause pain and sometimes severe health problems for a fourth of women in the United States.

Some have likened the founding of Evestra to Ilex Oncology Inc. being spun out of the former Cancer Therapy & Research Center. That cancer drug company put a major drug on the market and ultimately sold to Genzyme Corp. for $1 billion.

“If this as half as successful as the three founders think it could be, then it will increase the foundation endowment and fund more basic research” into cause, prevention and treatment of diseases, said John Kerr, president of Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research.

The move creates a niche for San Antonio in women's health drug research, said Ann Stevens, president of BioMedSA, a group formed with local government and private funds to promote the city's biomedical industry.

Stevens said the formation of Evestra “validates the quality of science that's being done here. This will help attract attention to San Antonio from investors.”

The foundation, begun in 1941 by oilman Tom B. Slick Jr., gets most of its money from endowments, donors and contract grants for organizations such as the government's National Institutes of Health.

When Kerr became interim president he was looking for potential developments that could be turned into a private company and eventually bring in more money.

What he found was an entire department — headed by Pemmaraju Rao — that could become a new company without ever leaving its labs.

Rao came to the foundation from India in 1958 at a time when hormones were a whole new area of research. He led the development of one of the first birth control pills in the early 1960s. He became head of the organic chemistry department in 1977. Rao will be senior vice president of research for Evestra.

Rao said he had never even thought about the business opportunities coming out of the research his group had done until Kerr pointed it out to him.

The research from that department led to numerous patents held by Rao and the foundation. Researchers believe some of those drugs can be reformulated to fight breast, prostate and lung cancer.

There also is promise in battling uterine fibroid tumors. The tumors are usually non-cancerous, but are developed by about one-fourth of all women in the U.S. and can cause pain and heavy blood loss and sometimes require a hysterectomy, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“This is a very large unmet medical need,” said Klaus Nickisch, Evestra chief scientific officer. “It has a significant influence on the quality of life.”

Evestra also will look to furthering its research into drugs that interrupt blood supply to the cancer and stop its ability to spread. The drugs are considered generally less toxic than chemotherapy drugs and are part of a cancer-fighting regimen.

Ze'ev Shaked was tapped as CEO of Evestra in hopes of repeating the success of Ilex Oncology, where he was a top executive and saw the company grow from a handful of people to 300 before Genzyme Corp. acquired it.

Shaked brought in Nickisch, a former Schering AG executive with expertise in overseeing oncology and female health care drug programs. Nickisch also will head a German arm of Evestra.

Southwest Foundation has invested $500,000 in the new company and will put more money in later, Kerr said. The next step is to go to local investors for another $4 million to further develop the company and make it attractive for still larger investments.

That will set the scene to take the company stock public.

“That process could come very, very quickly,” Shaked said. “We're not talking about 10 years. We're not talking about five years.”

This isn't the first company to come out of San Antonio institutions.

The conventional method has been to sell the rights to use a patented process or technology to another company. The University of Texas Health Science Center has made millions of dollars in royalties from the Palmaz stent sold by Johnson & Johnson.

But since CTRC spun off Ilex Oncology in the early 1990s, others have followed suit

UTHSC has spun off several companies. None of those became public companies, but the institution made money when those companies were acquired.

In 2006, British biotech firm Smith & Nephew bought OsteoBiologics Inc. in a $72 million deal. And late last year, Volcano Corp. purchased UTHSC spinoff CardioSpectra for as much as $63 million in cash and future payments.

VidaCare, also a company that came out of the medical school, has had some success with a system to quickly deliver life-saving drugs directly into the bone and biopsy bone marrow less painfully.

The fact that Evestra is starting its quest for a marketable drug by changing an existing one for another purpose will cut down on the massive expenditures and time that hamper most startup companies, said Christopher Palatucci, life sciences practices leader at Polachi, a Framingham, Mass., executive search firm.

The so-called “repurposing” of drugs isn't new. For example, the prescriptions Requip and Mirapex for Restless Leg Syndrome originally were developed to treat Parkinson's. Thalidomide was prescribed in the 1950s for nausea and insomnia in pregnant women until it was found to cause birth defects if taken in the first three months of pregnancy. More than 40 years later it was approved to treat leprosy.

And in 1998, a drug that had been used to treat enlarged prostate was issued in lower doses as Propecia, the first pill for male pattern baldness.

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