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Fledgling San Diego Biotech Pledges Not To Make Money

Video by Katie Schoolov

There’s a lot of money to be made in the biotech industry. So imagine forming a biotech company that pledges not to make money. That’s what a San Diego chemist has done. What’s more, his non-profit biotech specializes in neglected tropical diseases. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg takes a look at a firm that’s bucking a number of trends.

Drugs & Diagnostics For Tropical Diseases, or DDTD, develops tests that detect whether someone is infected with worms.

Photo credit: Katie Schoolov

DDTD founder Marco Biomonte stands in one of the laboratories of the San Diego biotech company Nanocomposix on June 2, 2015. He holds his company's first product: a test that can determine if someone is infected with worms.

There’s a lot of money to be made in the biotech industry, so imagine forming a biotech company that pledges not to make money.

That’s what San Diego chemist Marco Biomonte has done in creating Drugs & Diagnostics For Tropical Diseases, or DDTD.

The fledgling company keeps a low profile—it’s housed in the offices of another San Diego biotech called Nanocomposix.

Unique mission

Standing inside a large laboratory, Biomonte described his company's unique mission: to develop tests that detect whether someone is infected with worms.

“The worms we are interested in are worms that cause river blindness, those that cause lymphatic filariasis, where the leg expands and you’re completely handicapped, and then a third one which is called loa loa," Biomonte explained.

Photo credit: Community Eye Health / Flickr

River blindness affects more than 37 million people.

Two of these diseases: loaisis and river blindness, affect up to 58 million people in the developing world, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa.

First product

DDTD has developed a small diagnostic tool that looks like a home pregnancy test.

A person simply has to prick his or her finger and put a drop of blood in the device.

“And if you have you have the diseases we are looking at, there’s going to be some line that’s going to light up and appear," Biomonte said.

The crucial elements of this test are nanoparticles manufactured by Nanocomposix. These microscopic particles act as signaling devices. In essence, they light up when they find a protein shed by the worms.

DDTD found a different company to make an attachment for smart phones that reads the test. An app on the smart phone measures the level of infection, captures the GPS coordinates, and sends the information to a global database.

Biomonte said this will not only help researchers monitor the spread of these diseases, but it will also help doctors determine what kind of drugs a patient needs.

“Certain worms lay larvae in your bloodstream," he said. "They can lay up to 100,000 larvae per milliliter of blood. If you have only one or two larvae, you need to have one kind of treatment. If you have 100,000 larvae, you need to have another treatment.”

Biomonte's dream

Biomonte was born in Switzerland. After he earned his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Cambridge in England, he worked at a number of drug companies.

His dream was to start his own firm that would focus on neglected tropical diseases.

“And then at some point, I was working for a major pharmaceutical company in San Diego that decided to close its San Diego site, and that, for me, was just the right opportunity. I just had to do it. It was either live a life of regrets, or go for it," he said.

Biomonte wanted to have the luxury of working on certain diseases, without having to tell investors that they would make money on his projects.

So he formed a nonprofit.

“That enabled me to get a lot of goodwill right from the start," he said. “So I received donations of equipment from pharmaceutical companies, from private donors, and I could get started immediately.”

Fundamentals are the same

DDTD was founded in 2011. Shortly after that, Biomonte found a mentor, former biotech executive Martin Mattingly. They met each other through the program Connect.

Photo credit: Katie Schoolov

Former biotech executive Martin Mattingly shown on June 2, 2015. He said whether a biotech is a for-profit enterprise or a non-profit, the fundamentals involved in raising money are the same.

Mattingly advised Biomonte as he developed his business plan and a presentation for potential investors.

Mattingly said whether someone is pitching a for-profit biotech or something unique like DDTD, the fundamentals are the same.

“I mean they both still require you to convince somebody that what it is you’re doing is important and will succeed," Mattingly said. "Because even if you’re donating money, like someone would to this company, still, you don’t want to donate money if you don’t believe they could be successful producing something.”

The test for river blindness and loaisis would really fill a need, according to Dr. James McKerrow, the dean of UC San Diego’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy.

“Unfortunately, these diseases are called neglected because there’s little if any interest in the pharmaceutical industry, because these are diseases primarily of poor people in poor regions of the world," McKerrow said.

DDTD received a grant from the CDC in 2013. That enabled Biomonte to prove that his test works. Now, he figures he needs to raise about $500,000 to manufacture his device and get it out in the field.

That’s chump change in the biotech industry.

“$500,000 is a drop of water," Biomonte admitted. "Yet it’s difficult to get it.”

Still, Biomonte is confident he’ll be able to find the money.

He next wants to launch a project to create a pill that would protect people from mosquito bites for several days. It would be packaged with malaria medication, to keep someone who’s infected from spreading the disease to someone else.

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