It was a vexing problem that Jeffrey Phillips saw all too often as he worked in the intensive care unit of MU's University Hospital: Patients under enormous emotional stress were developing bleeding stomach ulcers that doctors found hard to treat.
Phillips, a staff pharmacist and associate research professor of surgery, came up with a simple solution that led to astonishingly quick and complete results, a drug combination that shut down the production of stomach acid and allowed patients' stomachs to heal. His treatment, two forms of which were approved by the Food and Drug Administration late last year, is now poised to become one of the next pharmaceutical blockbusters for the treatment of excess stomach acid. It has the potential to bring millions of dollars to MU, and to make Phillips a very wealthy man.
Phillips' work is the leading example of a new drive by MU to cultivate the commercial side of the research coming out of its labs and clinics, turning scientists into entrepreneurs and creating new sources of revenue for the university system.
It's a strategy many universities nationwide are adopting to augment their budgets as government funding dwindles and tuition hikes become a less acceptable option. In just the past few years, the MU system has sizably increased its portfolio of patents and the number of inventions in its pipeline. Plans are underway to build a "business incubator," an office and laboratory complex where faculty inventors can locate their start-up companies. And while dollars generated by MU inventors still comprise only a tiny part of MU's overall revenue picture, income from university patents is expected to jump from $2.6 million in 2004 to about $9 million this year, a jump largely due to Phillips' invention.
"The discovery he made is a beautiful story of a clinical person trying to solve a problem and recognizing that he came upon something really important," says Tom Sharpe, executive director of the University of Missouri System's Office of Technology & Special Projects.
Phillips came to MU in 1985 after graduating from the St. Louis College of Pharmacy and earning his Doctor of Pharmacy degree at the University of Utah. But the story of his invention began about 10 years later, at a time when resources for faculty inventors at MU still were slim and entrepreneurially minded scientists had to struggle largely on their own to get their inventions patented and marketed. Phillips had one of those simple ideas that only in retrospect seem obvious, a straightforward treatment that gives doctors the means to manage a life-threatening problem in ICU patients.
Patients in intensive care, dependent on ventilators and feeding tubes, often developed bleeding stress ulcers that were frustratingly hard to treat because doctors couldn't reduce stomach acid sufficiently to allow the ulcers to heal. "It was like road rash inside the entire stomach," Phillips said. "Patients kept losing blood. It was a downward spiral and a sign of impending doom."