A company focused on a monitor M. James Barrett leads Sensors for Medicine in developmental quest

January 25, 1998|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

M. James Barrett and his lean team of scientists and engineers are hot on the trail of overcoming a challenge that has stumped medical device makers for years: developing a fast, accurate blood-sugar monitor small enough to be implanted in diabetics.

Barrett puts the task before him succinctly: "The field is littered with the dead bodies of those who have tried and failed at this."

Nevertheless, the 56-year-old executive is no stranger to the high-wire risk involved in launching a new company to develop and commercialize breakthrough technologies. Among his recent accomplishments: He started and headed one of the first companies to test gene therapy in humans, Gaithersburg-based Genetic Therapy Inc.

In fact, say those who know Barrett well, it's the derring-do involved with the micro-sensor project that may have enticed him out of semiretirement last year to head the new company, Germantown-based Sensors for Medicine and Technology, dedicated to developing and commercializing the glucose device.

"Jim has an uncanny ability to look at a new technology and see the future of where it can go and the importance of getting there," said French Anderson, the director of the University of Southern California's gene therapy laboratories and a former National Institutes of Health researcher.

In 1987, Anderson and Barrett co-founded Genetic Therapy to capitalize on Anderson's groundbreaking work on gene therapy when many skeptics were predicting the obstacles were so great that it could take 30 years to get to human testing.

Anderson recalls it was Barrett's vision of how the technology should be developed -- and then focusing all of GTI's resources on achieving that goal -- that led to the company and NIH winning government approval just three years later for the first human test.

Although cancer, AIDS and other diseases offered targets with huge commercial potential, Barrett chose adenosine deaminase (ADA) deficiency, a genetic defect that leaves its victims with barely functioning immune systems. The rare, fatal disorder, he reasoned, would allow researchers to prove quickly whether the premise behind gene therapy -- in this case, fixing defective cells by inserting a therapeutic gene -- was valid.

The experiment's success proved to be the turning point for gene therapy, galvanizing support for more research.

Barrett stepped down from GTI in July 1996, a year after the former Sandoz Pharmaceuticals Ltd., now Novartis, bought the company for $295 million. Barrett says that while he would have liked to have stayed long enough to see a gene therapy reach the commercial market, he wasn't interested in working again for a large pharmaceutical concern.

Indeed, Barrett, said Anderson, is his own best boss. "He knows he's better off running a company. He wanted an opportunity that would be exciting and put his energies to their best use," he said.

In his latest venture, Barrett, who holds degrees in chemistry, biochemistry and business administration, is focusing on a tiny sensor developed by Arthur "Skip" Colvin, a research scientist who had worked under him in the mid-1980s at Bethesda Research Laboratories, now Life Technologies Inc.

Said Barrett, "Let's face it, you only go around once in life and you might as well do something that is worthwhile. To me this technology has enormous potential to make a lasting difference in people's lives and if we make money doing it, that's worthwhile too."

Competition

Barrett will need more than altruism to make Sensors for Medicine a success, say medical device industry analysts.

For one, it faces competition. At least three other small U.S. firms are attempting to develop new devices to make glucose monitoring easier. They are MiniMed Inc. of Sylmar, Calif.; SpectRX of New York; and Implanted BioSystems Inc., a subsidiary of Synthetic Blood International, of Kettering, Ohio. All are publicly held.

Also, there are regulatory and government hurdles that still must be overcome.

Chief among them: tweaking the design of a molecule that will be embedded on a micro-chip that will monitor blood glucose levels.

If Sensors for Medicine is successful, the glucose monitoring device has huge market potential for diabetes alone.

There are an estimated 8 million diagnosed diabetics in the United States alone, according to the American Diabetes Association. An estimated 8 million others are either misdiagnosed or undiagnosed. Also, it is one of the fastest growing chronic diseases in the country.

The market for blood glucose monitoring strips and meters is estimated by analysts to be a $2.5 billion global industry.

"Jim's a true entrepreneur. He has a unique ability to stay enormously focused, he understands the importance of cash flow, and he's a true motivator of people," said Charles W. "Chuck" Newhall III, of Baltimore-based New Enterprise Associates. The venture capital group is backing Sensors for Medicine with $2 million in seed financing.

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