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Let's celebrate the IRX Therapeutics relocation but not forget those departing companies

Gov. Rick Scott joins area officials last week at a news conference for drug company IRX Therapeutics, which is moving from New York to St. Petersburg. The company is developing a drug to help people with mouth and neck cancers.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Gov. Rick Scott joins area officials last week at a news conference for drug company IRX Therapeutics, which is moving from New York to St. Petersburg. The company is developing a drug to help people with mouth and neck cancers.

News that Manhattan-based IRX Therapeutics, whose research roots are here at the University of South Florida, will relocate to St. Petersburg with 40 jobs and a promise to eventually employ 280 should deliver a positive jolt to our confidence-pressed economy.

A $1.2 million incentive package from the state, county, city and the USF Research Foundation motivated the IRX relocation. That's a cheap investment these days — if IRX can grow sevenfold in the coming years.

The powers that be must think so, too. IRX's announcement at USF St. Petersburg drew the likes of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, USF president Judy Genshaft, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and former Mayor Rick Baker, who now helps USF recruit companies like IRX to Tampa Bay and leverage the university's research talents.

IRX Therapeutics even offers a good human-interest tale. CEO John Hadden II is not only the son of Dr. John Hadden, the company's retired founder and former USF immunopharmacology researcher whose early work forms the basis of IRX's efforts to develop cancer-fighting drugs today. The younger Hadden grew up in Tampa, graduating from Berkeley Prep before getting a management degree from Tulane and a Harvard MBA. Now he's on his way back here with his wife, two kids and a third on the way.

He's the first Hadden in a long time not to become a doctor.

"I broke a six-generation tradition," Hadden says.

All can be forgiven if the finance-savvy CEO can deliver what his firm, its investors (wealthy families are behind much of the $90 million backing IRX so far) and, now, we Floridians hope will happen. The company's "IRX-2" drug is entering a "phase 3" trial testing its ability to help people with mouth and neck cancers.

The goal, of course, is to win approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Most drugs never make it.

Hadden says oral or mouth cancers typically hit men in their 60s, especially if they drink and smoke. But now the disease shows up more often in men in their 40s, he says, because of the rise of human papillomavirus, also known as HPV, which is more associated with cervical cancer.

IRX expects to turn to Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center to help it find 500 patients for its trial with mouth and neck cancers that its drug might help.

The company hopes to move all of its 25 current employees from New York and will add 15 soon after arrival. Initially, the company will take temporary lab space available at the Tampa Bay Research Institute in north St. Petersburg.

Rick Baker says that's not only a good fit for IRX. It's also close to the office of Florida Blood Services, whose vast blood supply (specifically white blood cells) may prove useful.

Once the drug trial starts, IRX will need to start hiring more people to help produce IRX-2 for its tests. If FDA approval looms, IRX has a $275,000 credit (part of that $1.2 million incentive) from St. Petersburg for land in the city's Dome Industrial District — basically near Interstate 275 and 22nd Street S — to build its own facility. That's where the potential for 280 jobs averaging $97,000 (more than twice the county average) materializes.

All of this, especially in this economy, is awesome.

This is the type of work we certainly want to encourage to raise the standard of jobs, pay and work skills here.

This is also terrific validation that research done at USF may lead to an FDA-approved drug thanks to the return "home" from New York of IRX.

Hadden says IRX moved to New York in 2000 to get closer to the heart of cancer research and talent. Now, he says, Tampa Bay is richer in scientists, drug researchers and "regulatory" scientists (people trained to navigate potential drugs through the nation's vast scientific and government bureaucracy on their way to reaching the commercial market).

Gov. Scott used Thursday's IRX event as part of his latest campaign to promote biotech jobs and emphasize the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in schools to support future workplace needs.

Hopefully, the governor's office and the economic development machinery of Florida will use IRX and other area expansions, like Time Warner's announcement last month that it will bring 500 more jobs here, as big marketing messages that Florida and Tampa Bay can attract quality companies and jobs.

Friday's report that Florida's unemployment rate dipped lightly to 10.6 percent, after flatlining for months at 10.7 percent, is good news. So is the fact that Florida created a net gain of 23,300 jobs in September.

But here's a reality check.

Job losses and corporate departures are still happening all around us, even if the governor and mayors don't hold rallies to celebrate them.

While IRX got the spotlight last week, a publicly traded Clearwater company that provides analytical software for Internet users said it will move its headquarters — where else? — to New York. The move by Inuvo Inc., a company executive says, will let the firm "choose the best and brightest people."

Public officials also didn't gather around last week's notice by Stanley Black & Decker to cut 70 jobs and close its Riverview manufacturing facility, consolidating that work in Kentucky.

So let's keep some perspective. Our recovery will be tough. And IRX's move can help.

Its drug, IRX-2, holds great promise for cancer patients.

Hadden says the standard treatment of mouth and neck cancer (surgery, radiation, chemo) has not changed much in decades. IRX-2 does not directly attack such cancers or shrink tumors. It's designed to help one's immune system better fight the cancer. It's also supposed to equip the immune system with its own "memory" of such cancers — even after they are removed by surgery. That way, if the cancer returns, the immune system can recognize and respond.

Hadden suggests the drug, if successful, may add nine months or even a year of improved life to a cancer patient. In Cancer World, that's a long time. Many drugs add only weeks or a few months to life expectancy.

So let's welcome IRX Therapeutics. May its scientific success beget economic success.

No commentary on the IRX relocation can ignore the role played by USF patents and licensing attorney Valerie McDevitt. She's the one who monitored IRX in New York from afar. She noticed the company's New York lease was up. She's the one who called and said, "Why not come back to Tampa Bay?"

Smart move. By everybody.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Let's celebrate the IRX Therapeutics relocation but not forget those departing companies 10/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 21, 2011 7:46pm]
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