When CALS biochemistry professor Harry Steenbock experimented with vitamin D in the early 1920s, his work proved groundbreaking in more ways than one.
Steenbock’s discovery that he could increase the vitamin D content of foods through irradiation with ultraviolet light eventually eliminated rickets, a then-common and often deadly disease characterized by softening of the bone due to vitamin D deficiency.
With his own $300, Steenbock patented his discovery and offered it to the University of Wisconsin. When the university declined, Steenbock conceived of the idea to form a foundation to collect, invest and distribute money earned through research-based discovery—
a pivotal step in establishing the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the nation’s first university technology transfer office. WARF’s first licensing agreement with Quaker Oats in 1927 led to the fortification of breakfast cereals with vitamin D.
Since then WARF has patented nearly 2,000 university inventions. And—in the grand tradition of Steenbock—many of them stem from the labs of CALS scientists and alumni. Here we present some highlights from recent years.
Though the term biotechnology was little known in his time, Steenbock was one of the world’s first biotechnologists—and he passed on that torch to his gifted graduate student, Hector DeLuca.
The path was not always smooth, and DeLuca hit some obstacles when his own seminal work on vitamin D in the 1960s led him to WARF. When he discovered the active form of vitamin D and chemically identified its structure, he was unable to file a patent due to unwieldy government restrictions. DeLuca eventually obtained a patent with the help of WARF patent attorney Howard Bremer and some influential people in Washington. That same group worked with federal legislators on the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed nonprofit organizations to obtain patents spurred by federally funded research. As a result, WARF now holds more than 200 active patents from the DeLuca lab.
DeLuca is the founder of three spin-off companies, each stemming from his vitamin D work. Bone Care International, a maker of drugs to treat dialysis patients, was sold in 2005 to the biotech firm Genzyme for nearly $600 million. A second company, Tetrionics (now SAFC Pharma), was acquired by Sigma Aldrich Fine Chemicals in 2004 for close to $60 million.
Now DeLuca’s main focus is Deltanoid Pharmaceuticals, which he founded nearly 10 years ago with his fellow biochemistry professor (and wife) Margaret Clagett-Dame. The company is testing various vitamin D derivatives against osteoporosis, psoriasis, and kidney and autoimmune diseases, as well as other types of compounds to treat kidney failure. In clinical trials one vitamin D derivative seems to be highly effective in stimulating bone growth, and a number of other Deltanoid products are nearing the human testing phase.
With a business office located on Madison’s Monroe Street and about 10 employees, DeLuca describes Deltanoid as small but tenacious. “Our plan is to keep the company lean and mean until it has an income of its own,” he says.
Food contamination outbreaks generate headlines, especially when they result in illness or death. Virginia Deibel, while still a graduate student in food science and bacteriology at CALS, combined her interest in both subjects by forming TRAC Microbiology, a company that helps keep our food supply safe.
Deibel describes how it felt when TRAC played a pivotal role in identifying the type and location of bacteria that forced a shutdown in a large meat processing plant. The culprit turned out to be Listeria monocytogenes, the same bacteria that recently killed several dozen people who ate contaminated cantaloupes.
“We went in and found where the bacteria were harboring, removed it and tested that it was effectively gone. We then rewrote the client’s food safety programs, retrained all their employees and presented our corrective actions to the USDA,” Deibel recounts. “During the retraining phase I had employees coming up to me and thanking me for reopening the plant, which impacted entire families. That made me realize what we could do for a community.”
Deibel founded TRAC (for Testing, Research, Auditing and Consulting) 12 years ago. She was less than 18 months away from completing her Ph.D. when she began redirecting her energy toward writing a business plan and securing a start-up loan of $400,000.
“I knew from my work as a food scientist that there were many smaller companies that needed help with food safety,” says Deibel. “They simply did not have the necessary infrastructure to implement food safety systems.”
Initially TRAC services included helping food plants develop and update their food safety systems, train their quality assurance personnel and provide scientific justification for such practices as freezing, packaging and adding preservatives.
“Our original goals were to conduct research projects and provide food safety consultations,” says Deibel. But she soon discovered that many small food companies needed testing to meet customer requirements. That need inspired Deibel to expand its testing services, and TRAC, which eventually grew to 30 employees, soon succeeded in attracting larger clients from around the region.
Last fall Covance, one of the nation’s leading bioscience companies, announced the acquisition of TRAC Microbiology. Covance had paid close attention to TRAC and tapped Deibel to head development of its own food safety consulting division.
“Covance has excelled in so many different arenas—drug development, nutritional chemistry. I’m enjoying the challenge of helping such a respected company develop and grow a food microbiology arm,” says Deibel.