From teenage science project to Nasdaq

The gig: Andrew Ritter, the 34-year-old founder of Ritter Pharmaceuticals in Los Angeles, created the original form of the firm’s lead experimental drug by testing it on himself when he was in eighth grade. 

Ritter has been working on the project — which he says could be the first government-approved treatment for lactose intolerance — ever since.

Last year, Ritter’s company sold its first shares to the public. In October, the company completed a key clinical trial that could help the drug eventually win approval by the Food and Drug Administration. The first results from that trial are expected early next year.

A personal passion: At age 9, Ritter was diagnosed with lactose intolerance. He said he suffered pain and cramps if he ate even a tablespoon of ice cream or another dairy product. “What is really driving me is that I know how painful and embarrassing this condition can be,” he said. “When you’re a kid and you go to birthday parties, there’s nothing worse than not being able to eat ice cream and pizza.”

Power of old-fashioned library research:  At age 13, Ritter began researching lactose intolerance and looking for a solution. “This was before Google, so you had to use the index cards at the library,” he said. “I started tinkering with the theories I had gathered.”

Disbelieving adults: Ritter said that as a middle school student, he called and wrote letters to academic experts named in the research papers he read. Often he got no reply.  A pharmacist was also skeptical when he tried to purchase supplies for his experiments. “I had to get a note from my science teacher,” he said, “because the pharmacy would not give me the materials.”

Father in the business: Ritter’s father, Ira Ritter, has started and managed other companies, including a national wholesaler that distributed health products and another firm that published Playgirl magazine. Ritter said his father helped him as a teen to find a chemist and manufacturer that he worked with to formulate a powder that included a prebiotic. Ritter said the substance stimulates growth of beneficial bacteria in the colon, specifically those that metabolize lactose, a sugar found in milk.

Experimenting on himself:  Ritter said he mixed the powder in water and drank a glassful each day for about month while still in the eighth grade at Brentwood School. “Every day I would take it and think, ‘How did it go? Should I do it again tomorrow?’” He said he’s been able to eat dairy products ever since without pain. In 1997, he won a prize at the California State Science Fair for the project.

College start-up: While studying political science and business at USC, Ritter founded the company, then called Ritter Natural Sciences. He said his first funds came from family, friends and angel investors. His father helped create the company and is now its chairman. “He’s very forward thinking,” he said of his father. “When you are trying to run a company focusing on drug development, you need to look for long-term financing.”

Learning the hard way: The company first sold the powder as an over-the-counter supplement called Lactagen, advertising it with a smiling black-and-white cow and describing it as a cure for lactose intolerance. By 2008, the Federal Trade Commission had begun investigating the company’s promotional practices. The agency dropped the inquiry without taking action after the company agreed to change its marketing, including no longer calling the supplement a cure. “You have to be very careful how you make your claims,” Ritter said.

Aiming even higher: Rather than continuing to sell Lactagen over the counter, Ritter decided to try to get an improved version of the drug approved by the FDA. To help fund the necessary trials, Ritter went public last year, raising $20 million and another $5 million this summer.   “I went from science fair poster board to Nasdaq,” he said. “Kind of cool.”

Key to his success: Ritter still has much work to do. His company’s stock price is about half what it was when the firm went public. The company’s future depends on getting the FDA to approve the drug, which is hardly certain. “I’ve done this now for 20 years,” Ritter said. “I stuck with it and was able to show progress. I was relentless.”

Melody.petersen@latimes.com

Follow @melodypetersen on Twitter

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