Life sciences: Limitless potential
“North Carolina: first in flight, first in life!” cheered Martine Rothblatt, throwing her fist in the air before an audience of students and researchers at N.C. State University in November. The company she founded 21 years ago, United Therapeutics Corp., is part of North Carolina’s burgeoning life-sciences industry. Now, Rothblatt aims to make the state a leading manufacturer of transplantable organs through a subsidiary that preserves and restores donor lungs. With no prior experience in drug development, the former lawyer started United Therapeutics after her daughter, Jenesis, developed pulmonary arterial hypertension, a rare, incurable condition in which arteries in the lungs and heart constrict, making it hard for blood to flow. The Silver Spring, Md.-based company, which employs about 300 people at Research Triangle Park, had revenue of nearly $1.5 billion in 2015 and is now valued at more than $6 billion. Shares controlled by Rothblatt topped $500 million in mid-January.
CEO, UNITED THERAPEUTICS
Few CEOs are more forward-thinking than Rothblatt, whose diverse career includes founding SiriusXM radio and the Terasem Movement Foundation, which promotes the concept of extending life by creating a digital backup of our consciousness. Born as a male and undergoing gender reassignment in the mid-1990s, Rothblatt calls House Bill 2 “counterproductive for North Carolina,” though she has said her company remains committed to its operations here.
What was the inspiration for your company?
I needed to save Jeni’s life. I had donated $2 million to 10 different doctors to do research, and nothing was resulting. I knew that donating money was never going to result in a cure for her, especially since she was getting worse really, really fast. When I found out there was this medicine — it wasn’t really a medicine, it was a molecule because there wasn’t anything approved — it was the only chance I had. Everybody said to me, “Martine, it could be toxic. You know, it could have all kinds of problems.” Now I’m very sophisticated in drug development, but back then, I didn’t know anything. I just had the force of willpower that I had to do this for Jenesis. I said to myself, “If it’s the last thing I ever do in my life, it’s to get this drug approved for Jenesis.” And if you ever meet her, she’s an amazing person. She’s the strongest person I know.
Biotechnology is a growing sector in the state. What effect will the Trump administration have?
I think that Trump is probably pissed off about all the money that’s parked overseas, as am I. I think it’s unfair. Why should American taxpayers buy medicines, the profits of which end up being overseas? It’s not just medicines, it’s other industries too. It doesn’t make sense. So, I think that money is going to come back, and I think that probably will result in a wave of mergers and acquisitions, and the market is smart and senses that.
How have your perceptions of North Carolina changed over the years, including the HB2 controversy?
I would say, just get rid of [House Bill 2]. The negatives outweigh the positives. You just have to be practical. I have hundreds of employees here. We’re all proud to be North Carolinians. We want to go places and not have people think bad about us. But nobody’s been raped, nobody’s had any sexual assault. It’s not really realistic that [the law] would stop any assault.
I’d also say to the people on the other side, don’t try to get people to move out of North Carolina. Demonizing North Carolina is not going to help. [Lawmakers who support HB2] are not trying to be anti-trans. They think that they’re helping people. They think that they’re helping to prevent rapes. Their heart is in a good place. They’re just confused and mixed up. So, I think everybody should just pull together for the good of North Carolina.
Are you optimistic about the potential for new medicines to improve the quality of life of your customers?
United Therapeutics wants to restore health to its patients by converting [pulmonary hypertension] into a lifelong chronically manageable condition and ultimately find a cure. The company’s pipeline has grown from a single drug candidate to six, including programs to treat hypertension associated with emphysema, fibrosis, heart failure and sickle cell disease.
The company has branched out to address other medical needs such as high-risk neuroblastoma in pediatric patients and is also launching the clinical development of dinutuximab, an antibody for small cell lung cancer and other high-risk forms of cancer.
What do you do in terms of philanthropy?
Anyone who can’t afford United Therapeutics medicine can get it for free. United Therapeutics works with For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology, the Ronald McDonald Chapel Hill project in North Carolina and the Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension walk in Silver Spring.
GOALS FOR 2017
United Therapeutics is planning for substantial increases to research and development spending in the coming year. The company has positioned itself to get into the business of manufacturing transplantable human organs. The demand could potentially be big — there are upward of 123,000 people in the U.S. every year who need organ transplants, though there were fewer than 30,000 transplants in 2014. Only 1% of donated organs actually make it into a living body. Of that 1%, doctors use only one-fifth of donated lungs. Through investments in regenerative-medicine technologies, United Therapeutics aims to create an unlimited supply of transplantable lungs, and eventually other organs, to help cure PAH and other forms of end-stage organ disease.
By Hailey Waller