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Betsy Towner Levine
Roger Sabbadini, Ph.D. Physiology, '74
UC Davis alum Roger Sabbadini took a novel path to his career as a biotech entrepreneur: First he spent decades as a university professor.
And before that—as a psychology major at Davis in the late 1960s—Sabbadini was a self-described long-haired peacenik without any particular goals except protesting against the Vietnam War.
But that was all before he took a work-study job in zoology professor Ron Baskin’s lab.
“I got so turned on to science there,” Sabbadini said. “I was hired as a dishwasher in this biology lab, but there wasn’t enough work for me to do in the washing test tubes, so Ron Baskin suggested I also help one of his Ph.D. students studying muscle research and the mechanics of locomotion.”
Sabbadini found the science so fascinating, he started taking hardcore biology classes. During his first one, embryology, his teaching assistant Gail Foster became his informal mentor, then friend—and, later, his wife.
When he decided to go to graduate school, Ron Baskin sponsored him to enter the Ph.D. program in physiology even though he didn’t have a biology degree.
“He had experience with me in the lab and said I was bright and motivated,” Sabbadini said. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today without zoology professor Ron Baskin, who took a chance on this long-haired, hippie-looking psych major.”
Hair long ago clipped short, the retired San Diego State University biology professor has spent decades inspiring students in the same way.
“Now I tell my students that you have to find your sweet spot and your passion. I was lucky in that I found it at 22. I had hitchhiked around Europe and the Vietnam War was weighing heavily on me. I was in the war resistance movement and not that academic, until I met Gail and Ron—two mentors who motivated me to learn science.”
Today Sabbadini has combined his scientific motivation with another one: To give back to society.
“When I started at UCD there was no tuition and I had zero money, but I was able to get an education anyway. I figured that I should do something with it to give back, meaning to the state,” Sabbadini said.
He also wanted to improve the health and welfare of people through research into new therapeutics and diagnostics to help people manage their disorder and diseases.
“You can be a medical doctor and improve people’s health, or a veterinarian to help animals in that regard, but as a scientist you get to discover new therapeutics that can help multitudes of people and improve the human condition,” Sabbadini said.
During his tenure at San Diego State, Sabbadini said he spent years writing grants making promises to improve public health. And then he came up with an idea that really could help: a way to develop medications targeting bioactive lipids in the body, which can become dysfunctional and directly contribute to the development of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, ocular disorders, chronic pain and inflammation.
Because most medicines today target proteins, the development of agents against biolipids offers a whole new pathway to treat disease.
Sabbadini founded three biotechnology companies, Lpath, Vaxiion and Mpex, incubated out of SDSU. And along the way he forged a public-private enterprise model for professors to seed companies at public universities, then launch them into the private sector.
“The problem at universities in general is they are not set up to commercialize drugs—what university sells therapeutic drugs?” Sabbadini said. “The agreement is that academic institutions and the federal government help with basic science development and when anything moves toward commercialization, that’s the role of private enterprise.”
“So I had to figure out that I could develop this idea, get it along a path towards commercialization and start a company while still a tenured professor. SDSU worked with me to make it happen,” Sabbadini said.
Sabbadini leased lab space from the university to start. Undergraduates and graduate students interested in biotechnology could work in his lab, learning not only the straight academics but also that translational work that comes from working at a biotechnology company.
Eventually, Sabbadini realized he wanted to give 100 percent of his efforts to his research developing these novel therapeutics.
“I loved my job, and I miss the students and academics, but it seemed we were on a pathway to success and close to developing something we could get into the clinic. I felt that it was more valuable for me to devote my energies to biotech completely,” Sabbadini said.
Indeed, those efforts are starting to make significant progress. LPath now has two phase-II clinical drug trials going on, one to treat macular degeneration and one to target renal cell carcinoma.
And San Diego State has benefited as well: Today, half of Sabbadini’s employees are former students. One is even the acting CEO of Sabbadini’s second company.
To share the knowledge he has gained about public-to-private launch process, Sabbadini will visit UC Davis on May 24 as a guest speaker at Biotechnology’s Biotech Seminar. His talk, “Professor turned entrepreneur: Lessons for academics interested in translational science,” will focus on the rewards and difficulties in translating basic science into clinical development. He will present a successful model that he used in that regard that benefited students, faculty and the public of the State of California.