In the mid 1990s when biotech research was at a fever pitch, two pioneering scientists were working on solving a puzzle. Joseph (Yossi) Schlessinger, then chair of the department of pharmacology at NYU School of Medicine (now at Yale) had teamed up with Axel Ullrich, director of the department of molecular biology at the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry in Munich, to develop a first-in-class drug for treating cancer.
One compound that came out of their research, called SU11248, seemed to block certain cancer-promoting kinases, proteins that regulate message transmission between the outer surface of a cell and its inside. When these kinases go awry, their signals lead to uncontrolled tumor growth.
But in 1999, before SU11248 had made it through clinical trials, Sugen was bought by Pharmacia, which Pfizer acquired a few years later. The compound showed enough merit for Pfizer to invest in clinical trials and bring the drug to market. SU11248 is now used in a drug known by the brand name Sutent, a treatment that gives people suffering from kidney and gastrointestinal cancers—both notoriously hard to treat—hope for survival. (Sutent currently is in clinical trials for other cancers.)