Richter experiences biotech from all sides
As president and scientific director of Microtest Laboratories, Dr. Steven Richter goes about his day “working to save lives,” true to the company motto.
But he may have industry pioneers Genentech and Biogen Idec to thank for his own.
Richter, who has battled autoimmune disorders since adolescence, was treated in May with Rituxan, an antibody co-marketed by Genentech and Biogen Idec that targets a specific protein on the surface of antibody-producing cells in the immune system. In Richter’s case, it was a necessary step in the treatment of his idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP) – a bleeding disorder in which the immune system destroys platelets necessary for normal blood clotting.
“It’s really refreshing to have these treatments,” said Richter. “ITP is an orphan disease, but in the last few years we’ve seen more and more companies going after those diseases.”
At age 14, Richter was diagnosed with lupus – a chronic, inflammatory autoimmune disorder that may affect the skin, joints, kidneys and other organs. It is extremely rare in males, but Richter began noticing symptoms when he developed a rash after a dose of penicillin. He confirmed what doctors described as additional lupus symptoms, including dry eyes, joint pain and fatigue.
“The diagnostic techniques weren’t as robust as they are now,” he said. “All those little things could have easily been ignored.”
Following his diagnosis, Richter pursued the life sciences in high school with more vigor. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, his master’s in biological sciences from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and his doctorate in sterilization sciences from Columbia Pacific University.
He founded Agawam-based Microtest in 1984 after five years as a microbiologist at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Under his leadership, Microtest has provided the medical device, pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries with premier testing and manufacturing support. The company employs 85 workers including Richter’s wife, Tammy, who is project manager, and son, Justin, who is facility manager.
“My family’s been my rock throughout everything,” said Richter.
Though his lupus remained asymptomatic for many years, Richter was later diagnosed with ITP and rheumatoid arthritis – also debilitating autoimmune disorders. In November of 2009, he began a four-month treatment of immunosuppressive agents to reduce the clones of B-cells that had begun inadvertently attacking healthy cells and tissues in his body.
“Autoimmune treatment is an intricate process because you don’t want to destroy all the good cells,” said Richter. “The principal function of B-cells is to make antibodies against antigens, but mine were making antibodies against myself.”
Richter was in remission until last spring when his platelets began to fall to dangerous levels.
“My platelets were so low, I didn’t want to bleed out,” he said. “If I so much as hit my head, I could’ve died.”
His options were either to undergo a splenectomy or weekly treatments of Rituxan, combined with targeted chemotherapy.
“Because I’m in the biotech industry, the targeted approach made a lot of sense to me,” he said. “And one of the other benefits of Rituxan – though there’s not a lot of data yet – is that it could possibly cure my lupus.”
After four treatments of Rituxan, his platelets began returning to a normal level.
“I wasn’t bruising anymore; I could even play sports,” said Richter. “I had more energy and just felt better overall. It definitely improved my quality of life.”
In the midst of his four-week treatment, Richter was honored by his alma mater, UMass-Amherst, for his willingness to share his expertise as a microbiologist and entrepreneur with UMass students, faculty and staff. The university presented him with the Distinguished Achievement Award during the undergraduate commencement ceremony on May 15.
“It was incredible,” he said. “I never walked at my own graduation because I was at a job interview, so it meant a lot to be able to do it this time.”
Richter, a Southwick resident, is a former member of the College of Natural Sciences Advisory Council at UMass Amherst. He currently serves on the boards of both MassBio and MassBioEd and remains dedicated to advancing the work of the life sciences.
“It’s an amazing industry, helping so many people like myself,” said Richter. “To be involved is incredibly exciting.”