By Jim Stafford
Copyright (©) 2015, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
Conversation at the dinner table in Ann Arbor, Mich., was different for a young Rafal Farjo than it was for you and me. His father was an engineer. His mother was a physician, as were his three older brothers.
“We were a very close, tightknit family,” Farjo told me while seated in his office at Oklahoma City’s EyeCRO, the contract research subsidiary of Charlesson LLC.
“So that meant that even when my older brothers were in college we had dinner together every night, and I was exposed to a lot of the medical field,” Farjo said.
“I would come home every day and my parents asked about what I learned in science class. It got me thinking about the whole scientific method and learning.”
That didn’t leave much room for assessing the latest episode of “Murder, She Wrote,” for instance.
But it certainly led him into a research career that is deep in scientific discovery.
Today, Farjo is chief operating officer of both EyeCRO and Charlesson, which are involved in research to advance treatments for eye disease such as age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and ocular inflammation.
Far from resisting his family’s interest in all things STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — Farjo embraced it.
“I loved it, and I actually started doing research at the University of Michigan not because I wanted to do research but because I was doing my requisite semester of research to get a letter of recommendation for medical school,” he said
So, after earning his undergraduate degree at Michigan, Farjo decided a path in research was his passion and applied to the University of Oklahoma for graduate school, specifically for the opportunity to work the distinguished vision researchers at the OU Health Science Center and Dean McGee Eye Institute. He earned his Ph.D. in cell biology from OU.
After completing the program, he joined Charlesson, which was founded by Dr. Jian-xing “Jay” Ma, the chairman of the physiology department in the College of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
Today, Ma is president of Charlesson and also director of research at the nearby Harold Hamm Diabetes Center on the Oklahoma Health Sciences Center campus.
EyeCRO was created to operate as a contract research organization to assist other companies involved in eye disease research.
Recently, EyeCRO was awarded a patent for a platform technology it developed called MiDROPS. It signed a development agreement with a Seattle-based company called NeuMedics.
MiDROPS is a microemulsion formulation that allows medicines to be delivered more effectively into the eyes via an eyedrop, rather than direct injections into the eye, which are now the industry standard.
“This is all the brainchild of Dr. Drew Wassel, who is our director of chemistry and formulations,” Farjo said. “He is what I would call my resident Thomas Edison 2.0, because the guy is just brilliant and has great ideas that turn into gold.”
Wassel screened tens of thousands of formulations that led to one that remains stable for long periods and doesn’t dilute the medicine. That’s MiDROPS. Farjo envisions several more deals with other companies to use the formulations.
“We would like to build an arsenal of these and instead of injecting drugs into the eye, turn them into eyedrops,” he said.
Located at the University Research Park and supported by a strong scientific community at both OU and the Dean McGee Eye Institute, Farjo describes Oklahoma City as a great environment for ophthalmic research and development.
But it was his family that put him on the path to research years ago at the dinner table.
“My family is definitely the best influence on me,” he said.
Jim Stafford writes about the state’s life sciences industry on behalf of the Oklahoma Bioscience Association.