Russell Rother was a farm boy growing up in Watonga and worked on the family's dairy operation. You can still hear western Oklahoma in his voice.
After high school, Rother began a journey into scientific research that eventually led to an FDA-approved drug, a multibillion dollar public company and his current position as chief operating officer of Oklahoma City-based Selexys Pharmaceuticals.
It may seem like a stretch to equate the rural farm life with scientific research, but Rother says his career as a scientist is firmly rooted on that Watonga farm.
“Growing up on a farm is a good way to stir the imagination and creativity,” he told me recently as we sat in his Selexys office at the University Research Park.
“At heart I've always wanted to be a scientist,” he said. “I think certain people with inquisitive minds just know, but it's certainly not the easiest path to a career.”
Rother advanced toward an undergraduate degree in biology at Southwestern Oklahoma State University while working in the oil field on weekends to fund his education.
He was inducted in the Southwestern Alumni Hall of Fame in 2012.
After graduating from Southwestern, there were stops at the University of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and Yale University.
Rother earned a Ph.D. at OU in molecular immunology with research conducted at OMRF. Then it was on to Yale for post doctorate training.
“I planned to do a three-year stint and then return to the University of Oklahoma or OMRF,” he said. “But things never seem to work out as you plan them.”
What happened is that Rother joined a group that included fellow Yale scientist and Oklahoma native Scott Rollins, who started a Connecticut company called Alexion Pharmaceuticals.
The company licensed patents from OMRF and developed a drug known as Soliris, which won FDA approval in 2007.
Soliris has been called a “miracle” drug for its effectiveness in treating the rare blood disorders PNH and atypical HUS. Alexion is a publicly traded company with a current market value of $26 billion.
By 2007, Rollins had been lured back to Oklahoma as CEO of Selexys, and Rother wasn't far behind.
He left his position as chief scientific officer at Alexion in 2010 to return to his home state as Selexys' chief operating officer.
“It was really nice to be able to come back to my home state and do what I've done for 20 years, but this time in Oklahoma,” Rother said.
Selexys is involved in a critical Phase 2 clinical trial for a drug it as developed that treats sickle cell disease. Rother is in charge of the Selexys clinical study and interactions with the FDA.
The drug, known as SelG1, has shown such promise that Selexys attracted millions of investment dollars to carry it through the clinical study. The global venture capital firm MPM Capital led a $26 million Series A investment round in the company, while Selexys signed an acquisition agreement with Novartis Pharmaceuticals that could be worth up to $665 million.
Results should be available in 2015.
Even if the clinical study is successful and the company is acquired, Rother has no early retirement plans.
“First and foremost in importance is for this drug to be beneficial for sickle cell patients, because there has not been a drug approved for sickle cell disease in 15 years,” Rother said. “It's a very debilitating disease with severe consequences.”
“I enjoy what I do, so I will do it for as long as I can.”
Jim Stafford is a communications specialist with i2E Inc. in Oklahoma City.