OTT30: 1st Start-up & IPO – CytRx

2015 marks the 30th anniversary for Emory OTT and part of that celebration includes a series of blog posts highlighting important “firsts” for the office.  This month we highlight the first start-up which also happens to be the first start-up with an IPO – CytRx. (Since CytRx, ten more of our start-ups have gone public and seven have been merged or acquired.)

In the mid-1980s, Dr. Robert Hunter, then a pathology professor at Emory, and William Ragland at the University of Georgia began studying vaccine adjuvants, substances added to a vaccine to increase the body’s immune response to the vaccine. When venture capitalist Steve Gorlin took an interest in their work in 1985, Hunter started the biopharmaceutical company CytRx to support further research. And so, Emory OTT saw its first start-up.

Once CytRx obtained the initial boost of funds from Gorlin, the company held a public offering to raise additional capital in 1986, also making it OTT’s first startup to go public. Following a successful IPO, Hunter and the other researchers began studying a drug named RheothRx, which facilitated blood flow  in damaged tissue and inhibited thrombosis.

Hunter and his team saw an untapped potential in RheothRx. A crude form of RheothRx had made open heart surgery possible in humans by preventing the severe blood cell damage previously exhibited in heart-lung bypasses. But Hunter and his team saw many more possibilities for the drug. For the next few years, they investigated RheothRx and eventually were granted over 40 U. S. patents for prevention of damage to tissue, treatment of hemorrhagic shock, crisis of sickle cell disease, adult respiratory distress syndrome, burns, heart attack and stroke. “It was exciting, we developed data that RheothRx acted by a unique mechanism to help cells withstand and recover from injury in a wide range of conditions.” said Hunter recently.

OTT30 Celebration GraphicAfter performing two Phase I clinical studies, CytRx licensed the drug to Burroughs Wellcome who continued the research and produced two highly successful Phase II clinical trials for heart attacks and sickle cell crisis. Burroughs Wellcome then conducted a phase III trial for heart attacks. This trial found that the drug produced renal toxicity in elderly people who had preexisting renal damage. Burroughs Wellcome, who had become Glaxo Wellcome, dropped the drug and returned the license to CytRx in fall 1995. CytRx quickly demonstrated that the toxicity was due to contamination with low molecular weight impurities. These were successfully removed to produce a purified drug, Flocor, that was awarded new patent protection.

In 2002, CytRx ran out of money and merged with Global Genomics who kept the name CytRx. Global Genomics, now CytRx, had its own drug development pipeline and lost interest in the RheothRx and related agents. Two years later, Hunter with two key employees of the original CytRx started a new company, SynthRx, that acquired rights to the technology, wrote a grant and conducted highly successful studies on treatment of hemorrhagic shock. In 2011, SynthRx was taken over by Adventrx who changed its name to Mast Therapeutics. Mast Therapeutics is now conducting a Phase III trial for treatment of acute crisis of sickle cell disease and pilot studies of stroke, heart failure and other conditions. They have rekindled the excitement of the old CytRx.

Looking back, the value of CytRx to Emory was considerable. There were several tangible and intangible benefits. CytRx supported research at Emory that led to multiple NIH grants and collaborations with the CDC and others. The thesis projects of at least eight PhD students were derived from CytRx technologies. We were doing ‘translational research’ decades before anyone coined the term. It was a remarkable period of excitement, optimism, and discovery produced by regular interactions between scientists at CytRx and Emory doing things that neither could do alone. It was the dream of every scientist: solid science making progress towards needed products.

To see more about Emory OTT’s start-ups please go to our website here.