Oklahoma-based scientist determines herbal ointment is worthy treatment
By Paula Burkes
Copyright © 2016, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
A medical doctor who’s also a homeopath in rural India is successfully treating people suffering from eczema and psoriasis — including babies with severe cases — with an ointment made of tree bark, roots, leaf extracts and 22 other natural herbs.
Meanwhile in Oklahoma City, Mike Centola — a scientist and entrepreneur who’s already successfully commercialized technologies developed at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation — has proved the ointment’s efficacy in clinical trials used for prescriptive drugs. He’s marketing the ointment, MetaDerm, through Amazon, with plans to partner with a pharmaceutical company in India and manufacture the evidence-based herbal medicine here.
From his fourth-floor offices at 755 Research Parkway, Centola, 52, recently sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about his life and career, including founding Haus Bioceuticals Inc. in 2010. The company employs 10 and has annual revenues of $750,000.
This is an edited transcript:
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: In Los Angeles. I joke that I, as a scientist, am a mutant born to parents who ran a modeling school, which they started in Northern California and later relocated to L.A. and franchised. They developed a unique concept that put teenagers into character roles as a way for them to learn poise, charm and confidence. My father was a former off-Broadway actor. My mother, in the late ’50s, was a dance show girl in Florida, Puerto Rico and Cuba. They fell in love in New York, when my mom worked in my dad’s drama school. I have four older sisters; one is a former Playboy bunny, which my parents were more than OK with. They saw her as following in their footsteps in show business. Another sister followed me here, after falling in love with Oklahoma visiting me. Counting her husband, daughter, son and their kids, there are nine of us here, and 10 in L.A.
Q: What was your thing as a kid?
A: In elementary school, I had a microscope, collected rocks and watched tadpoles develop in pond water. It was pretty clear that I was going to be a scientist. From the moment I walked into a lab, I felt at home. I loved the process of discovery; finding out something new. I was a data junkie. I’d go in the middle of the night and on weekends to observe. It was like having my own toy box. I’m not your stereotypical introverted scientist. From day one, I’ve always been extremely collaborative, and I love being in a network.
Q: What led you to become an inflammatory biologist?
A: My father died of a rare form of anemia associated with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) that wipes out red blood cells, and one of my sisters suffers from severe lupus. Both are autoimmune disorders in which the body attacks its own normal cells. I was working in a biology lab as an undergraduate when my father was diagnosed and was able to hook him up with a top UCLA researcher who explained his disease to him and that he wouldn’t die from it until years later. His experience caused me to focus my career on translational science. In postdoc work in Santa Monica, I found CLL patients who have autoimmune B cell tumor clones could be treated earlier and more aggressively to significantly relieve their secondary disease of anemia. From 1995 until 2000, when I was recruited here by OMRF, I worked in Bethesda, Maryland, for the NIH (National Institutes of Health) rheumatology branch and helped clone the first human disease gene of a rheumatologic nature. We developed a gene sequencing method for the diagnosis of familial Mediterranean fever (FMF), which could be treated with a drug to help prevent protein buildup in patients’ organs to delay their premature deaths. That hooked me on translational science.
Q: Tell us about your work at OMRF and the science you commercialized into the now San Francisco-based Crescendo Bioscience, which in 2014 was ranked by Inc. magazine as the seventh fastest-growing private U.S. company and No. 1 fastest-growing health care company. Did you benefit monetarily?
A: At OMRF, I — working alongside Moe Reichlin, the father of rheumatologic blood tests — studied some 20,000 parameters in the blood to distill a small set of measurable parameters that had clinical relevance for the diagnosis and prognosis of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. The result was Crescendo, which provides molecular testing for better management of the diseases, and was founded as a technology transfer from the OMRF. In forming the biotech company, we had the help of OCAST and i2E here to teach us how to write a business plan and raise the some $100 million we spent on the company. Bill Hagstrom — once CEO of Oklahoma’s former UroCor biotech company and former Crescendo CEO — was my mentor. OMRF and a number of Oklahoma-based seed stage investors benefited from the $330 million sale of Crescendo, which grew from a one-man operation, me, to some 130 today. I was paid $800,000, which helped us start Haus Bioceuticals. We want to keep Haus a lean startup (For the past two years, Centola hasn’t drawn a salary.), grow organically and not hand over our baby like we did with Crescendo. So at the end of the day, we can make all our own calls.
Q: How did you get connected to the doctor/homeopath in India who started using the herbal extract?
A: He’s the brother-in-law of a scientist at Johns Hopkins University, who’s a former student of mine and had no time to study the herbal extract, which the doctor and homeopath found to relieve arthritic symptoms in the patients who rubbed it on their hands. My former student did a quick study to disprove its efficacy, which amazingly showed the extract, when injected into the abdomens of mice, could successfully treat sepsis, which is characterized by whole-body acute inflammation, as well as gastrointestinal autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s. Just like with Crescendo, we’ve been testing blood parameters in our MetaDerm studies, and believe there are many more applications for treating other immunodeficiency diseases with herbal medicines.
Q: Tell us more about MetaDerm, including why you’re selling it on Amazon.
A: We launched on Amazon three years ago and are using the site to help evolve the brand and as a sort of social media laboratory. My phone number is on every bottle. The feedback we’ve gotten from customers ranges from enlarging the tube to including a pump and offering an accompanying foaming wash. We’ve had 1,000 reviews. MetaDerm currently is being manufactured in India, but we’re planning to build an FDA-compliant facility next door and move the facility in India here. We’ve partnered with Cadila Pharmaceuticals Limited in India and licensed the technology to a consumer products company. We see many more partnerships in our future including with EpimedX, which is located in our same research park and is focused on a plant-based hormone to treat sickle cell anemia. India has the second-highest incidence of sickle cell worldwide, behind Africa.
Q: What’s India like?
A: Vibrant. People have a sparkle about them; they want to know all about you and tell you about themselves and their relatives. In the big cities — Delhi and Mumbai — it’s a river of cars, bikes, people on tuk-tuks and buses all flowing together. People often will drive against traffic and they’re honking all the time like bats; not to say “get out of my way” but “I’m here.” Business there is analogous to the way they drive. They run at full throttle. You might go to meet someone, then get on a plane and go to meet someone else in the same day. If Haus Bioceuticals weren’t in both places, we wouldn’t exist. They benefit by our regulatory discipline and we benefit from the capability of trying something new.