One local biologist is anxiously awaiting the results of a clinical test for AIDS -- acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
The outcome could mean big sales and future profits next year for Biotech Research Laboratories Inc. in Rockville, the small biomedical products and research firm that developed the test.
For Robert C. Y. Ting, one of Biotech's founders, the success of the AIDS test would mark a turning point in a company and career that illustrate the integral connection between the National Institutes of Health and the biotech industry.
Ting began his postdoctoral research in virology in 1960 on a grant from NIH, joined NIH in 1962 as a visiting fellow and launched Biotech Research in 1973 with contract sales to NIH.
Scientists at NIH's National Cancer Institute have isolated the virus believed to cause AIDS. NIH supplies the virus to several firms, including Biotech, which are licensed to develop and market blood tests to detect the presence of antibodies to the virus.
The Rockville company was a profitable supplier of research services and supplies, primarily to government agencies, until 1981 when it raised $3 million in its first public stock offering. Since then, Biotech Research has posted annual net losses as it invested in research to develop products.
The AIDS test, if commercially successful, could return the company to profitability next year and could move it toward its goal of increased product sales and reduced dependence on contract revenue, which accounted for 70 percent of its business last year.
The government estimates a need for 23 million AIDs tests a year and has licensed five commercial concerns to produce and market it, including Biotech Research jointly with E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. Biotech hopes initially to market it to blood banks and clinical laboratories. "There are big bucks available for AIDS research," said Ting, scientific director of the company.
The product is a natural outgrowth of both the company's success in developing other viral diagnostic tools and Ting's experience in virology, microbiology and oncology.
Ting, 55, was born in Shanghai and fled China at age 19 during the revolution there. His family moved to Hong Kong and sent his older sister to college in the United States. She applied to Amherst College for her brother.
He earned a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's in genetics at Amherst, and then a Ph.D. in microbiology and biochemistry from the University of Illinois.
From 1960 to 1962, Ting studied tumor virology at the California Institute of Technology on a NIH postdoctoral research fellowship grant. Working with Renato Dulbecco, who later won the 1975 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology, Ting joined the nationwide effort to determine how viruses cause tumors.
"A lot of molecular biology developed from this," Ting said in his Rockville office, cluttered with scientific journals, awards and a large blackboard. "There was so much evidence in animal systems [that viruses cause tumors], that the next question was obvious -- can you find the equivalent in humans."
Ting moved to NIH in 1962 as a visiting fellow (because he was not yet a U.S. citizen) to work at the National Cancer Institute's Laboratory of Cell Biology. In 1964, with his newly acquired U.S. citizenship, he won a civil service appointment as a research microbiologist at NCI.
Ting left NCI in 1969 to join Litton Bionetics Inc. as head of a special cancer materials lab that worked on NIH contracts to determine if viruses caused human tumors. The primary reason for leaving NIH was the civil service pay. "I have three kids," Ting said. "There is no question, NIH is the world's leading research institution. . . but you reach a certain level and your pay stays the same," he said.
At Litton, Ting said he "started learning the business angle." The substance of the work was similar, but "the difference is that a contract has a very defined scope of work" and a strict budget.
Like many other local industry scientists, Ting found that his NIH experience helped him get contracts.
Eventually, he decided to go into business for himself. "I felt since I myself was able to bring in those contracts, why should I work for someone else? That's why Biotech Research Labs was started: I learned my science at NIH and business at Litton, and was ready to start on my own."
Ting's brother-in-law lent the start-up capital; Ting's friend Thomas M. Li, a Gaithersburg business executive became president; Ting became scientific director, and in 1983 the company recorded its first sales from an NIH purchase order -- 100 grams of mammalian cells for Robert C. Gallo, chief of the Tumor Cell Biology Lab, whom Ting had known for years.
While Biotech Research hopes to increase its product sales, it plans to maintain contractual connections to NIH "to acquire ongoing expertise, to stay on top of the cutting edge developments," Ting said.