Reata stands out among collaborative biotechnology success stories

By Amanda Siegfried / Holidays 2010

Ten years ago, while he was investigating natural products for their biological activity, Dr. Jef De Brabander stumbled upon a metabolite from a sea sponge that appeared to have anti-cancer properties.

At about the same time, Dr. Philip Thomas discovered that protein folding is disrupted in cystic fibrosis and other diseases and had developed a novel way to monitor the process inside cells.

Dr. Jef De Brabander

About the only thing these researchers had in common at the time was that they worked at UT Southwestern.

Today, they are self-described best friends and, along with several colleagues, founders of Irving-based biotechnology company Reata Pharmaceuticals. The company, launched in 2002, has a number of potential new drugs in its pipeline and recently entered a partnership — potentially valued at $800 million — with Abbott Pharmaceuticals to develop and market Reata’s drug bardoxolone, which has shown promise in clinical trials for treating chronic kidney disease.

Co-founders of Reata along with Dr. De Brabander, professor of biochemistry and in the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Dr. Thomas, professor of physiology, were Dr. Jonathan Graff, associate professor of developmental biology, internal medicine and molecular biology; former UT Southwestern neuroscientist Dr. Thomas Sudhof; Dr. Waldemar Priebe, professor of medicinal chemistry at UT M.D. Anderson Cancer Center; and Warren Huff, president and CEO of the company.

While Reata is now one of UT Southwestern’s most successful spinoffs, getting the company started required help. Dr. Stone coordinated the effort along with Mr. Huff and private investors. Working together, they brought several lines of promising research from UT Southwestern, M.D. Anderson and other entities into one company.

Dr. Philip Thomas

“Dennis came to my office one day and told me of his plans to pool several different ideas into one venture,” Dr. De Brabander said. “Everybody had their own separate discoveries, and we were all trying to shop these separately, which is the way it is typically done elsewhere. Dennis had the view that by putting our ideas together, it would mitigate some risk for each independent investigator.”

Dr. Thomas said the approach was unique in the biotech industry, which at the time typically fostered start-up companies that were centered around developing a single potential compound or platform.

Ten years ago, while he was investigating natural products for their biological activity, Dr. Jef De Brabander stumbled upon a metabolite from a sea sponge that appeared to have anti-cancer properties.

At about the same time, Dr. Philip Thomas discovered that protein folding is disrupted in cystic fibrosis and other diseases and had developed a novel way to monitor the process inside cells.

“We knew that our technology had utility, but we lacked any kind of practical expertise in the business area,” Dr. Thomas said. “Dennis’ office solved this issue by matching us with people who had this expertise, namely Warren Huff and Robin Kral, Reata’s vice president for intellectual property, who worked for Dennis at that time.”

“The Office for Technology Development has been tremendously helpful to us,” Dr. De Brabander said. “Every time we have a question, or a doubt, we just call them, and they are very responsive. I had no experience at all, but they guided me through this process.

“What’s equally important in being successful is that you have to be ready as a scientist to manage your time and take it seriously. It’s initially a lot of work but it is very exciting and, for us, it has been rewarding as well.”

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Dr. Thomas holds the Ruth S. Harrell Professorship in Medical Research.

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