LA BioMed woos deep pockets interested in its lifesaving research

From iodine eyedrops that prevent blindness in children to cholesterol testing to early discoveries that led to in vitro fertilization, the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute has made innovative scientific breakthroughs with worldwide implications since 1962.

But the renowned research institute hasn’t profited much from the groundbreaking technologies it birthed.

Last week, however, the facility for the first time invited entrepreneurs, investors and pharmaceutical company representatives to its aging, World War II-era campus near Torrance to learn about the latest marketable medical treatments conceived by its roughly 100 researchers.

LA BioMed, as it’s commonly called, is adjacent to County Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and most of its research is done in partnership with medical doctors there. The first-ever Innovation Showcase was held Thursday in one of the few new buildings on campus, the Chronic Diseases Clinical Research Center.

The showcase introduced funders to medical doctors who have founded businesses based on their research into sickle cell anemia, heart disease in infants and deadly fungal infections, among myriad other diseases and infections.

“This is a formalized, strategic, concerted effort to pass along these assets to society through our startups and licenses,” said Ruben Flores-Saaib, the event’s organizer and assistant vice president of business development at the institute.

“We want to facilitate the translation of these inventions into cures and treatments. It’s a very interesting asset to have that we’re showcasing, and a big reason for bringing everybody to LA BioMed to see what’s happening here.”

The treatments are also very lucrative.

For example, a vaccine born in LA BioMed research facilities is expected to have a market worth of $1 billion because it has shown great success with a fungus that causes recurring yeast infections and hard-to-treat pathogens that have a 40 percent mortality rate.

That market is expected to grow even more lucrative as researchers at NovaDigm Therapeutics — the spinoff company that is developing the vaccines discovered at LA BioMed — learn more about how it can treat staph infections and other so-called bacterial “superbugs.”

“The real desire of the founders is to impact the mortality” associated with these infections, said NovaDigm Chief Executive Officer Tim Cooke. “We’re on a mission to raise awareness of candida. It’s under-recognized and undertreated.”

NovaDigm is close to reaching the commercial market with its treatments, thanks to research funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, venture capitalists and the National Institutes of Health, which is the main funder of LA BioMed’s research.

Other, newer companies with patents pending also presented their discoveries at Thursday’s showcase. Vitalex has a treatment for mucormycosis, a highly deadly fungal infection. And QT Medical is developing a “pulse oximeter” to screen for critical heart disease in infants and newborns.

“The goal is to find large companies that may be interested in marketing our technologies,” Flores-Saaib said. “I’ve already heard a lot of positive feedback and we’ve seen a number of connections made already.”

Flores-Saaib was hired last year to facilitate this kind of development, as the institute is trying to raise money to revamp its decrepit facilities that were used as military barracks during World War II. The campus master plan includes 140,000 square feet of new research space but, with a projected cost of $105.5 million, fund-raising will take time and persistence.

County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas attended the Innovation Showcase to demonstrate his support for LA BioMed’s work and growth.

“Every time I come here and see those old Army barracks, I want to suit up to go to war,” Ridley-Thomas said. “LA BioMed’s got it going on, with more than 50 lifesaving research projects. It’s time to do what we need to do. World War II is far behind us. It’s time to have a brand-new, innovative, imaginative campus that will be the envy of the region. I’m looking forward to the next chapter in LA BioMed’s future and growth.”

Other treatments born at LA BioMed that will soon reach the commercial market include the use of glutamine therapy for those suffering from sickle-cell anemia. Dr. Yutaka Niihara, who founded Emmaus Medical Inc. to market the treatment, said it has already been shown to reduce hospitalizations and debilitating pain caused by the disease.

“We can’t say yet if (the treatment) will increase life expectancy, but that’s what I’m hoping,” Niihara said. “It’s a global disease that affects 20 million patients worldwide. This is the first new treatment for adults in 20 years.”

Not all of the facility’s research is focused on saving or extending lives. Kythera Biopharmaceuticals is using technology developed at LA BioMed to get rid of double chins.

Currently, LA BioMed has been granted about 60 patents and has 49 patent applications pending, Flores-Saaib said. About one-third of those have been commercialized, and the institute’s leaders hope that will translate into continued growth and diversification of its revenue stream.

“The reason we want Pfizer and other Big Pharma companies to invest in academic center inventions is because it creates incentive for companies to come up with new drugs,” Flores-Saaib said. “So becoming more market savvy is a win-win-win situation. It’s a win for humanity, a win for the companies and a win for the research institutes.”