As a student at UCLA doing research on organ-tissue matches three decades ago, George Ayoub found a match for himself.
One of his professors, Paul Terasaki, developed the first widely used test for matching organ donors and recipients. Ayoub wound up working in Terasaki's lab on campus and the two later formed the company that grew out of their work, One Lambda Inc.
Last year, revenues at the Canoga Park-based company surged 33 percent, to about $60 million, thanks to the role its tests play in bone marrow transplants. "Thousands of people undergo these procedures and it makes such a difference to each of their lives," said Ayoub, who is chief executive. "We want to be pioneers and always ahead of everyone else in this game."
Terasaki, who is chairman and principal owner of One Lambda, first got involved in the field of tissue-matching (called histocompatibility) in 1964, when he developed a test that was accepted as the international standard for tissue-typing. The procedure determines the compatibility of tissue from organ donors and recipients.
Precise tissue matching is vital in transplant procedures to prevent organ rejection and other complications. Terasaki's test used blood serum, the clear liquid that can be separated from blood and contains its antibodies, to isolate 200 different factors to measure a match.
When Ayoub was a UCLA undergraduate in the 1970s, a Food and Drug Administration grant that funded Terasaki's early work had run out. The researcher kept the work going by selling serum-typing trays to laboratories, while Ayoub developed an interest in the area, co-authoring about 20 research papers.
The testing method, called human leukocyte antigen typing, was eventually deregulated and the process was commercialized. The pair saw an opportunity in forming their own company to sell test kits to laboratories and hospitals.
Ayoub and Terasaki took out personal loans to found One Lambda, starting with six employees who did everything from research to labeling to quality assurance. Sales at the end of the first year were about $2 million.
At first, One Lambda specialized in serology-based typing trays, but the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the then-Soviet Union raised the standards for tissue typing.
Victims of Chernobyl needed bone marrow transplants, which required more sophisticated tests of DNA than simple serum testing provided. Researchers saw that DNA testing, which compares eight times the number of antibodies as serum testing does, could be used for diseases like leukemia that also attack the bone marrow and for more precise testing for organ transplants like the heart or kidneys.
These advances have led countries to develop bone marrow registries that can be used to obtain matches for leukemia patients and others needing transplants.
While more lives are being saved, only about 20 percent of patients needing bone marrow transplants have living blood-related donors. Others have to find a match in someone totally unrelated. This is where the registry comes into play. The more the number of donors registered, the better the chances are of a quicker, near-perfect match.
Among One Lambda's customers is the immunogenetic lab at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. Originally, the lab purchased serology trays from One Lambda before switching to their DNA based products.
"Their products have always been the best on the market," said Dr. Elaine Reed, director of the lab. "They are reliable and always generating new products, so we want to continue working with them."
Emerging uses include tests for diagnosing spontaneous abortions or designing personalized versions of brand-name drugs that could increase their effectiveness.
On the company's campus, the research zone is separated from corporate offices by a parking lot. From the main door, it takes three swipes of an ID card to get to the sprawling 27,000-square-foot lab.
The room, containing an array of machines that hold DNA fragments for testing, is stark white and the floor is a maze of wires. Computers and research scientists dot the floor. (Many researchers are recruited from UCLA and the Cal State Northridge.)
Typical customers for One Lambda's typing trays are labs in hospitals, specialty research labs and other organizations like the Laboratory Corp. of America and the National Marrow Donor Program.
"The National Marrow Donor program would probably charge $60 for a test, but that is because they do it on a large scale. Normal hospitals usually charge around $100 for one test, which is still affordable," Ayoub said.
The company also produces tests tailored to the genetic makeup and disease profile of varying ethnic groups Asian trays, Hispanic trays, African-American trays, for example.
"There are (antibodies) that are very rare here but could be very common in Japan. So for trays being shipped to Japan, we will emphasize on those antibodies and call them Asian trays," Ayoub said.
One Lambda scientists could one develop new typing trays that will help detect spontaneous abortions, monitor drug response to help tailor-make drugs to suit needs of different people and also to detect ankylosing spondylitis, a disease that causes the bones of the spine to grow together.
"A lot of these are works in progress," said Ayoub. "It will open up a whole new market for HLA. The need for HLA research and technology has grown to more than ever before."
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