Dr. Mitchell Steiner recently returned from a trip to Eastern Europe, where he visited hospitals participating in international clinical trials for the drug enobosarm, which is being developed by his Memphis-based public biopharmaceutical company GTx Inc.
Enobosarm was created for the prevention and treatment of muscle wasting in patients with non-small cell lung cancer, and Steiner said he is pleased so far with the drug’s progress.
“It went well,” Steiner, CEO and vice chairman of the company’s board, said of the trials. “And what I learned very quickly is that lung cancer is unfortunately very prevalent in those countries. … We wanted to make sure we felt good about those clinical sites and more importantly get to meet the people who’ll be involved in this trial.”
Malignancy causes patients to lose muscle over fat, resulting in extreme weakness and fatigue. Steiner says patients who experience less muscle wasting are likely to live longer.
“This drug is geared toward building muscle to address physical function,” he said. “In addition to fighting the cancer with chemotherapy, you’ve got to do something for the host so that they’re stronger and they can withstand the chemotherapy and do the things they want to do each day, so when the cancer’s under control they can have a better quality of life.”
If the trials prove successful and enobosarm goes to market, GTx could potentially triple its size. The company, which employs about 90 people in Memphis, could expand to a nearly 300-person company, producing novel, selective small molecules targeting established hormone pathways to prevent and treat cancer, bone loss, muscle loss and other serious medical conditions.
That would be a boon for GTx, one of 13 Memphis-based public companies, and for its founder, who always knew without a doubt that he’d pursue medicine, saying he “never even thought of anything else,” and “that’s what I excelled at in school, as well.”
Steiner left his native New York to study at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. After graduating in 1982 with a degree in molecular biology, he came to Memphis to study medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine, graduating in 1986.
He then left Memphis to serve his residency in general surgery and urology at Johns Hopkins University and James Buchanan Brady Urologic Institute, later returning to Tennessee to teach and conduct cancer research at Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine.
“Oncology is what I would call the uncharted frontier,” Steiner said. “If that natural consequence of aging is unfortunately being around long enough with all these carcinogens that you’re going to start to develop cancer because your DNA is unstable, then that’s what we need to be focusing on.”
Steiner in 1995 returned to Memphis, joining the UTHSC faculty as associate professor of Urology and Pharmacology and director of Urologic Oncology, and was named the Mark S. Soloway Professor of Urology, Chair of Excellence. He served as professor and chairman of the Department of Urology from 1999 until 2003.
Steiner said he went from being a surgeon to developing drugs because he believes surgery will become increasingly rare as drugs improve.
So in 1997, Steiner and businessman Marc Hanover co-founded GTx.
“I’m the scientist and he’s the business guy,” Steiner said of Hanover, who today serves as president and chief operating officer of the company.
After establishing GTx, the pair was approached by AutoZone Inc. founder J.R. “Pitt Hyde,” Steiner’s former patient, asking how he could help support the fledgling company.
Hyde had previously made a $1 million research donation to Steiner’s laboratory at UTHSC, which had funded the development of some of GTx’s original technology.
“We consider him sort of the third founder because he came in early and has been a guiding force in the company,” Steiner said.
In 2004, GTx became a public company, enabling it to acquire access to public capital.
“That’s the cheapest form of capital,” Steiner said. “And the other reason you do that is because you want to have the ability to raise more money as you go forward, and it helps when your company can be valued in the public market. It allowed us to have more options for financing going forward than we would if we were private.”
Steiner chose to keep GTx in Memphis largely because of the city’s resources around discovery.
“What builds good biopharmaceutical companies are the products, which come from discovery,” he said. “There’s a medical school and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital providing the raw discovery, but there’s no outlet for the commercialization of that discovery.”
Consequently, he said, when discoveries have been made, they’ve often been taken elsewhere in the country to be developed.
“One of the University of Tennessee’s mandates is to provide research for the public health of Tennessee, and if they’re not commercializing, then how does the public health of Tennessee benefit?” he said. “We’re highly focused in cancer and cancer supportive care, but there are other discoveries that fall outside of that and should be developed. Our feeling is that if we can do well and other people can do well, we’ll create the synergy, as well as the critical mass, to attract talent into the city and retain that talent.”
Steiner’s work requires a great deal of time and travel, so he enjoys spending his downtime with his four children, playing in the dirt and tending to their horses on the family’s small farm in Germantown.