By Deborah Borfitz
Sept. 29, 2008 | Lifetree Clinical Research has come a long way in a short time. When the Salt Lake City, UT-based clinical research organization (CRO) launched in March 2003, it offered only investigative site services at a small, private pain clinic. Co-owners Lynn Webster, MD, and Alice Jackson, RN, each put up less than $100,000 to begin operations. Within its first year of business, Lifetree was generating enough profits to build a free-standing clinical research facility where Webster’s pain clinic would co-locate, says Jackson, Lifetree’s CEO.
Client demand quickly transformed Lifetree into a “specialized research organization,” says Jackson, who has been doing analgesia studies for 20 years. “In our business plan, we never dreamed we would offer full-service CRO services within five years. We started small and put good processes and quality initiatives in place,” including training curriculum and standard operating procedures governed by FDA regulations.
The facility incorporates a 50-bed Phase I unit, therapeutically focused on central nervous system disorders, says Jackson. It is probably the only Phase I unit in the nation with its own operating room, which is used for chronic pain procedures and proof-of-concept through Phase III studies. It is one of very few Phase I units outside of academia whose capabilities include cerebral spinal fluid draws to look for the presence of compounds and biomarkers to better understand the mechanism of experimental therapies.
Webster, an anesthesiologist certified in addiction medicine, is a recognized thought leader in abuse liability protocol design, says Jackson. Virtually all of his chronic pain patients are on prescription narcotics. Among the general population, one in three people will be in chronic pain at some point in their life. “We’re helping many companies develop narcotic-based pain medications that cannot be misused [by non-patients] for an immediate euphoric high.”
More than half of Lifetree’s business comes from a turnkey package of services that includes drug development planning from the pre-clinical stage through FDA approval, says Jackson. “We can even execute the trial right here.”
In its very first year in business, Lifetree was audited by the FDA because one of the drugs it had worked on was up for approval, and its research facility was one of the high-enrolling sites, says Jackson. “We passed with flying colors – no 483 [inspectional observations of non-compliance].”
Lifetree’s entrepreneurial spirit and innovative business tactics helped catapult it into the league of Utah Business magazine’s list of the 50-fastest growing companies this summer. Based on revenue growth, Lifetree ranks as number 19 in the state, says Jackson. Revenues increased by 23 percent from 2006-2007, 98 percent from 2006-2007, and by 47 percent from 2005-2006. The company employs 62 people, up 250 percent from the end of 2006.
Jackson was recognized earlier this year by Utah Business as one of the magazine’s “30 Women to Watch.” Lifetree will be listed later this year as number 1,645 on the 2008 Inc. 5,000 fastest-growing companies in America list, she says. Among healthcare companies, it’s ranked as number 64.
About 50 biopharmaceutical companies are Lifetree clients, says Jackson, and 80 percent of them are repeat customers.
“The CROs we compete with are global and much bigger players than us,” says Jackson. As a small, specialized CRO, Lifetree’s advantages are flexibility, responsiveness, and more competitive pricing. Its disadvantage is that it has not yet ventured out of Salt Lake City. “Going forward, we have an aggressive growth plan. We want to open up other Lifetree facilities throughout the nation and internationally.”
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