OptoDerm was founded by John Heath, in 2010. John originally founded Bionix, in 1981, the first privately owned biotechnology firm in South Africa. Bionix specialised in two areas – the design and production of humanised monoclonal antibodies, mostly targeted at various tumour types, and adoptive immunotherapy (1990 SABC3 video here – 151Mb)
Monoclonal antibodies are now, some 30 years later, the basis of most new oncology drugs (their names usually end in the letters ‘mab’). John’s team in Sandton, South Africa, worked with leading biotech companies around the world, including Hoffmann la Roche, Genentech, Amgen, Xoma, Rhomed etc. They pioneered new ways to create antibodies against difficult antigens and the subsequent immortalisation of the antibody producing cell lines.
Bionix gained notoriety in the 80’s for its work in adoptive immunotherapy, a process that involved removing lymphocytes from cancer patients, exposing them to various lymphokines (eg Interleukin-2 and gamma-Interferon) in vitro, and then adopting them back into the patient after a few days. Bionix was one of two companies in the world at that stage, undertaking this work and its clinical trials were conducted in conjunction with leading oncologists in South Africa, with the permission of the Medicines Control Council. Although Bionix was only permitted to enrol terminal patients, for whom all other treatments had failed, many trial patients’ lives were extended and in a few cases, total remission was achieved. This form of treatment is only now, some 32 years later, being heralded as a “breakthrough” in cancer treatment. The political climate in South Africa at the time made it difficult to gain international acceptance and backing, and the company was sold to a multi-national pharmaceutical company in 1990. Sadly, many of its pioneering initiatives in South Africa were discontinued.
Under restraint of trade, John invested in the electronics industry and listed the business of Zaptronix on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 1998, serving as Chairman and CEO. Zaptronix was the only company in South Africa able to manufacture ‘chip on ceramic’ components, today the basis of all LED lighting products. It was voted in the top 10 of the Technology Top 100 companies in South Africa in 1997 and was winner of the Energy Category, with its pioneering work on time-of-use electricity management and remote metering systems. These systems could largely solve the load-shedding crisis that South Africa faces today, by pricing electricity usage based on different peak, off-peak and super-peak usage tariffs. Zaptronix was acquired by Hitachi in 2000.
In 2001 John’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and he decided to leave Zaptronix. At the time he had researched NASA’s experiments in the International Space Station, using LED lamps of different wavelengths to treat various conditions. Using this knowledge, he used a near-infrared lamp to help with his wife’s healing process. Encouraged by the success of this lamp, he starting investigating molecules activated by light of different wavelengths, with a local university. The first compound was 5-ALA (5-aminolevulinic acid), a compound that preferentially accumulates around cancer cells and once activated by red light, forms cytotoxic compounds, that destroy cells in close proximity. This form of phototherapy is commonly used by dermatologists to treat Actinic Keratoses and Basal Cell Carcinomas.