Fla. Scientist Pursues Staph Vaccine

WELLINGTON, Fla. — Stanley Kim spends a lot of time thinking about the slime that coats staph germs.

His startup company, Strox Biopharmaceuticals of Wellington, aims to create a way to kill Staphylococcus aureus, a stubborn infection that, by one count, claims more Americans than AIDS.

Kim's theory: Staph's jelly-like surface thwarted Nabi Biopharmaceuticals' high-profile attempt to defeat the bacterium. He thinks the antibodies produced by Nabi's once-promising StaphVAX vaccine clung to proteins inside the ooze, rendering them invisible to the immune system.

Antibodies work by sticking to germs and alerting white blood cells to devour them. Strox hopes to produce an antibody that would bind to the outside of staph's slimy coating, a perch that would let it signal white blood cells to eat staph germs.

"I think I've come up with something that everybody else has missed," Kim said — although he acknowledges that Nabi disagrees with his theory.

Will Kim's effort succeed? Plenty of scientists, including those at Nabi, have swung and missed in attempts to end staph. When StaphVAX failed a crucial clinical trial in 2005, Nabi shares plummeted, and the company later moved its headquarters from Boca Raton to Rockville, Md.

Another stab at a vaccine, this one by Inhibitex Inc. of Alpharetta, Ga., likewise fell short.

Ken Bayles, a staph expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said he's unfamiliar with Strox, but he's skeptical that Kim's approach will prove more successful than others.

"A number have been tried, and there have been a number that have failed," Bas a doctorate in immunology from the University of Miami. He's also a patent lawyer at a firm in Wellington.

"My law practice keeps the lights on," Kim said.

The moonlighting approach illustrates the challenges of running a startup company in Palm Beach County.

More mature biotech hubs offer affordable wet-lab space where budget-conscious companies can share expensive equipment.

No such luck here, where the biotech cluster is in its infancy. Kim said he wanted to do his research here but instead uses researchers at an academic lab in the Northeast to develop Strox's antibody.

Then there's the matter of funding. Kim hopes to raise $500,000 to $1 million, an amount he calls too small to interest venture capitalists but too large for him to cover from his legal earnings. Florida so far lacks a robust network of biotech angel investors who would take an interest in small companies like Strox.

In the past few years, Florida taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to lure Scripps Florida and Max Planck Florida to Jupiter, the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies to Port St. Lucie and the Burnham Institute to Orlando.

The goal, of course, was to create a thriving community of biotech startups like Strox. True, launching a biotech company is a crapshoot even in life-sciences meccas like San Francisco and Boston. But Kim said the health of Palm Beach County's biotech cluster hinges in part on nurturing the neediest companies.

"If we don't have support for companies like mine," Kim said, "we're going to slow down the development of this industry."