By Stephen Prescott, M.D.
Copyright © 2017, The Oklahoma Publishing Co.
Happy New Year!
In the world of health and business, 2016 brought its share of headlines. But many of those stories read like the ghosts of Christmases past.
There was outrage over a massive price hike for an old drug (EpiPen). Health insurance costs (most notably the plans offered through Obamacare) skyrocketed. And a major American drugmaker (Pfizer) nearly moved its headquarters overseas as a tax dodge.
Locally, though, the leading stories were fresh and new. Plus, in contrast to their national counterparts, these developments were decidedly upbeat, heralding exciting things to come in 2017 and beyond in Oklahoma City.
Novartis acquires local biotech firm
When the world’s second largest drug company purchased Selexys Pharmaceuticals in November in a deal that could ultimately reach $665 million, it was the first many had heard of this Oklahoma City biotech company. But it’s a success story that’s been three decades in the making.
In the 1980s, Dr. Rod McEver led a team of researchers at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center that made a series of findings about a protein known as P-selectin. The protein, they found, plays an important role in allowing white blood cells to stick at the sites of injury or infection to promote healing. But in certain people, it can also cause excessive accumulation of the cells, leading to tissue injury and even organ damage.
In 2002, with Dr. Richard Cummings, McEver co-founded Selexys around that research. They ran the company for a half-dozen years until 2008, when the pair recruited Dr. Scott Rollins as CEO. Rollins, an Oklahoma native who’d done graduate work at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, had played a key role in building Alexion Pharmaceuticals from a startup to a $20-billion-plus biotech powerhouse.
Over the next eight years, Rollins raised capital, licensed important discoveries from OMRF — where McEver had moved his lab — and spearheaded the creation and testing of an experimental drug to treat sickle cell disease. Just before Selexys unveiled the results of an extremely promising clinical trial of the drug, Novartis acquired the company.
The Selexys story is a huge win for Oklahoma City. Unlike most of the city’s previous biotech successes, this one had a slate of local investors, so the Novartis buyout will benefit numerous Oklahomans who backed Selexys. It’s also created a much-needed drug for a painful and life-threatening disease that affects almost 100,000 Americans. The icing on the cake is that McEver and Rollins have already spun off a new company, Tetherex, which is based in Oklahoma City and is using selectin-based technologies to develop treatments for illnesses like cancer and Crohn’s disease.
OU Medicine joins forces with Saints
After 18 years of partnership with Nashville-based HCA Corp., OU Medicine announced in October that it would be ending that agreement to team up with the parent company of St. Anthony Hospital.
Under the deal, HCA will receive a reported $750 million for its ownership stake in the OU Medical Centers in OKC and Edmond. Then OU, SSM Health Care (St. Anthony’s holding company) and the University Hospitals Authority and Trust will form a new nonprofit that will oversee the operations of what will become the Oklahoma City area’s largest health care provider and employer.
For the deal to go through, there remain a significant number of approvals: federal, the state’s Contingency Review Board and the Oklahoma Supreme Court. And integrating the practices of a Catholic health provider with OU Medicine will involve some adjustments.
Still, assuming all i’s get dotted and t’s crossed, the integrated, yet-to-be-named system will consist of OU Medical Centers in Oklahoma City and Edmond, St. Anthony’s and The Bone and Joint Hospitals in Oklahoma City, a pair of physicians networks and numerous regional health care centers. In other words, it’s going to be a health care powerhouse in the greater Oklahoma City area.
A new TIF for the Innovation District
The past few years have brought considerable discussion about creating a new “Innovation District” around the Oklahoma Health Center area just east of downtown. But 2016 delivered something more concrete for this initiative.
In December, the Oklahoma City Council voted to create the city’s 11th tax increment financing (TIF) district. The new district stretches east from Automobile Alley and encompasses OUHSC, OMRF and numerous other health-related entities. The district also includes the new GE Global Oil & Gas Research Center.
The TIF is projected to generate $52 million in new tax revenues. Those funds will now be budgeted for a variety of projects aimed at economic development, educational enhancement and neighborhood redevelopment in the Innovation District.
With almost 18,000 jobs and general revenues approaching $4 billion each year, this area is a sleeping giant in Oklahoma City. Add in this new funding and the talented folks across the city now devoting their talents to this effort, the prospects are now bright for tapping the copious resources — human and otherwise — in this district to create a vibrant innovation hub.
What shape this initiative will take remains to be seen. (Put a deck on the freeway, anyone?) But now that we have some momentum and funding, I’m confident that the end product will be a live-work-eat-play area where entrepreneurship thrives.
A physician and medical researcher, Prescott is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and can be emailed at [email protected].